"Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths," a new exhibition by Tom Joyce
Tom Joyce, artist, MacArthur Foundation Fellow, and CAST contributor is the lead guest curator of Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths, an exhibition at UCLA’s Fowler Museum through December 30. This exhibition features objects from blades to currency and musical instruments to body adornments, the bulk of them made of forged iron. It “reveals the histories of invention and technical sophistication that led African blacksmiths to transform one of Earth’s most fundamental natural resources into objects of life-changing utility, empowerment, prestige, artistry, and spiritual potency.”
This exhibition is the result of decades of research. Tom personally visited 147 collections over the last fifteen years in the U.S. and abroad and selected 225 objects from the 7,000+ works he viewed. Pieces date from the early 17th century to the present. The artworks were eventually borrowed from fifty collections – twenty-five public and twenty-five private - and represent the highest artistic achievements by African blacksmiths employing every forging technique imaginable as well as several magnificent cast pieces.
“When iron is heated in a charcoal fire to white-hot temperatures, skilled African blacksmiths move the metal like clay. Using hammers as an extension of their hands, they can model any shape they desire upon their anvils. With astonishing technical prowess these artists have, for over 2,500 years, created the essential and the conceptual, the visually compelling and the sublime. It is a privilege to share their masterful achievements.” – Tom Joyce
Seeing so many pieces of such high caliber assembled and beautifully organized in one space is a rare opportunity. If you are able to make it to Los Angeles between now and December 30, Striking Iron is a worthy destination. If not, perhaps you'll have a chance to catch it at one of its other traveling venues:
Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.
February 13 - October 20, 2019
Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris
November, 2019 - March 2020
Striking Iron begins with an immersive, tunnel-like entryway featuring a multi-projector audiovisual presentation on the walls and ceiling, of a galactic swirl juxtaposed with close-up views of the sparks of a blacksmith’s hammer striking red-hot iron, or of the molten iron core of the Earth followed by molten iron flowing from a smelting furnace, set to the sound of heartbeats alternating with the pounding rhythm of a smith’s hammer. Visitors are thus introduced to the centrality of iron in the universe, its visible presence on the Earth’s crust, its symbiotic relationship with the planet’s first life forms, its vitality in the hemoglobin that oxygenates our blood.
The exhibition is organized around eight thematic groupings and is peppered with videos and field photos (some included here), texts, artists’ perspectives, and “spotlights” within the groupings to bring special attention to genres or particular regions. The show also boasts a customized gallery tour.
The thematic groupings are:
1) The cosmological science of iron
2) Sustaining home and farm
3) Weapons and authority
4) Religious and ritual implements
5) Jewelry and body adornment
6) Currency and mediums of exchange
7) Musical instruments and sounding forms
8) Contemporary iron works and a look into the future
The groupings are telling - they give a sense of the narrative arc of the show and the thinking behind its organization. Having tried our best to organize CAST in a way that made sense - and now, thinking about organizing our upcoming exhibition, CAST: Art and Objects - this is interesting information. Perhaps it's interesting to me in a different way than most exhibition-goers, but I have always appreciated knowing the philosophy and organizational principles behind projects that involve large quantities of information.
African ironworking is not my area of expertise although I have always loved African art and objects and usually make a beeline for the African work whenever I’m at a museum. I have long sensed the indescribable potency and appreciated the beauty in African objects and that visceral impact stays with me long after seeing the work. This exhibition is the best of the best - I can't wait to see it in person when it's in Washington, D.C. Because I’m a relative neophyte (albeit an enthusiastic one) when it comes to this subject, I’m relying heavily on the information Tom, his super-assistant, Helen, and the Fowler Museum provided for this post. (For clarity, excerpts from the curatorial team's texts will be indented and italicized.) Huge thanks to all for taking the time to help me assemble this piece for the blog.
They generously procured the images - some forged pieces and some cast – that will give you a sense of the exhibition and the importance of iron from nineteen countries, mostly south of the Sahara.
Contemporary African Blacksmithing
In response to shifts in local economies during the colonial period, African blacksmiths began incorporating increasingly available salvaged materials into their work through creative recycling. Today, smiths forge work to accommodate new contexts and purposes. The Yorùbá deity of iron, Ògún, for example, has become the patron of automobiles, laptops, and cell phones, ubiquitous in urban southwestern Nigeria. Blacksmiths continue to help people cope with social and political change, serving as technology brokers who transform one thing into another - truck wheels become bells and gongs; automobile leaf springs become axes and machetes; old refrigerators become charcoal stoves and asen (iron tomb and shrine sculptures in the Republic of Bénin); and flattened bicycle spokes become “thumb pianos” in western Zambia. Smiths continue to forge objects for ritual activation, spiritual empowerment, and ancestral veneration as well as healing, fertility, prophecy, and protection. As demonstrated in "Striking Iron," cultures always keep pace with new needs and opportunities.
To give you a sense of place and in an effort to connect these objects to their makers, here are some field images Tom took during three research trips to Tchare, Togo of Kossi Kao forging an initiation bell.
Kabre blacksmith, Kossi Kao, and his assistant, striker Essozimna Ide, forges a bell (ekpande) to be performed in male initiations held in mountain villages of northern Togo.
Despite how “old school“ it may seem to see blacksmiths working with stone tools, in the hands of skilled practitioners who’ve grown up with time-tested methodologies, they are as efficient, if not more so, than their Western counterparts. Though such processes may be ancient, they are by no means “simple” or “primitive” and represent appropriate technologies perfectly ergonomic for the tasks they perform. Basalt hammers (kima biye) and anvils (taata biye) are standard equipment among Kabre blacksmiths because dense volcanic stone doesn’t absorb heat as readily as a steel anvil would, allowing iron to be worked longer, therefore reducing the number of heats to finish a shape.
During (waa) the last of five arduous ceremonies boys undergo, Kabre families gather to accompany them in a procession on foot for ten days to each young man's natal community. Encircled by supportive family members, each initiate learns to play the bell and is tutored on specific rites for his transition into manhood. Elaborate headdresses created on antelope skull armatures are adorned with feathers, seeds, and recycled objects to announce the arrival of a new generation of cultivators and family heads.
Video credit 1: Sounding Forms: Bells (see full credit at the end of the blog post)
The cultural significance of ironworking in Africa:
Yorùbá, Edo, and Fon peoples of Nigeria and the Republic of Bénin share systems of knowledge, practices, and cultural objects made of iron, a medium possessing a performative power known as "a’se" among Yorùbá and Edo and as "se" among Fon. Deified in the figure Ògún (or Gu, among Fon peoples), iron is considered essential in many domains: truth telling and moral behavior; divination; war; medicines that protect, cure, or destroy; the fertility of the earth and of humans; and the honoring of ancestors. Ògún’s creative energies orient a person’s life, and iron, as a guarantor of a’se, insures the efficacy of both sacred and social acts.
Just as a blacksmith’s tools mediate between the hand and fire, Ògún is the intermediary between humans and the potencies of iron implements. A cast copper alloy staff in the form of a male figure represents Ògún sitting upon a blacksmith’s iron poker or rake. He is bedecked with a gun on one shoulder, a fly whisk on the other, and daggers on his hips. His crown-like headdress, beard, and baldrics (sword belts) are associated with the era of military rule in early- to mid-nineteenth-century Yorùbáland. The sharp blade of an axe with an exquisitely carved wooden handle and of a warrior’s sword held in a beautifully beaded sheath signify the presence of Ògún himself.
The Ògbóni/Òṣùgbó Society is the Yorùbá judicial body responsible for deciding disputes and criminal cases as well as for supervising the installation or dethronement of sacred rulers. Elder members possess, wear, and direct the efficacies of ẹdan—intricate brass castings on iron shafts depicting the heads or full bodies of female and male figures joined by an iron chain. The two shafts of one pair exhibited here terminate as tongs while another’s become a paddle-rake and poker. These blacksmith’s tools would have lent additional capacity to Ògún’s presence in Ògbóni/Òṣùgbó activities, and to the ability to judge wisely and solve community problems.
While Striking Iron’s primary focus is on forged objects, the show does include some magnificent cast objects as well. The three images above are exceptional examples of African casting, each piece with a distinct, direct, sophisticated sensibility. The stylized figures are expressive, taking advantage of casting’s strengths with their modeled exaggerated features, richly textured surfaces, and being modeled in the full-round. As a casting geek, I love that there’s so much cultural significance given to these objects.
Forging and Forged Objects:
Forge: “to make or shape a metal object by heating it in a fire or furnace and beating or hammering it.”
Forging is an ancient approach to metalworking that is still used today all over the world in the creation of metal objects. One way to assess a blacksmith’s forging skill is his or her ability to exploit the plasticity of their material. Having been fortunate enough to see Tom demonstrate forging at a conference when I was in graduate school, I remember being riveted (no pun intended) watching him forge and the efficiency of his hammer blows. He not only made it look effortless, but he moved the metal like clay – something I had never seen before. He was able to accomplish in a single hammer blow what would take most blacksmiths ten or twenty - and if we’re talking about his artwork, I don’t know of anyone else who can do what he does when it comes to making giant chunks of metal move like clay. See what I mean?
I digressed from the topic at hand to demonstrate that Tom’s assessment of all things iron carries great weight, not just because of his decades of research, but because of his own prowess at forging iron as a sculptor. He trained early in his career in the art of blacksmithing. Here he discusses the African blacksmith’s tools:
Video credit 2: Forging: The Blacksmith's Tools (see full credit at the end of the blog post)
Below is a cross-section of the culturally significant objects forged by African blacksmiths – from ceremonial staffs to weaponry and musical instruments, the blacksmith is an indispensable member of many African societies.
This is a video of Tom discussing an object known as an Asen, or “ancestral altar,” made by the Fon peoples, in the Republic of Bénin. Tom describes the Asen as “a funerary praise poem for a deceased individual.” This is one of the most poignant and delightful celebrations of a life imaginable – each element individually forged, it is a rich mix of symbols and narrative elements and it gives a clear sense of the person it commemorates and what that person valued.
Video credit 3: Ancestral altar (asen): Fon peoples, Republic of Bénin (see full credit at the end of the blog post)
Here, Tom discusses an Orisa Oko, or ceremonial staff:
Video credit 4: Staff (ọ̀pá Òrìṣà Oko): Yorùbá peoples, Nigeria (see full credit at the end of the blog post)
Tom discusses this oshele (throwing knife-shaped currency):
Video credit 5: Currency blade (oshele): Nkutshu, Ndengese peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo (see full credit at the end of the blog post)
Enjoy the soft, honey-like tones of lamellophones, or “thumb-piano,” like the one shown above:
Video credit 6: Lamellophone (“thumb piano”/mbira): Shona peoples, Zimbabwe (see full credit at the end of the blog post)
The transformative quality of iron, whether cast or forged, has been revered in Africa for millennia and the blacksmith occupies a rarified place in many societies.
Tom Joyce’s research into African blacksmithing and his efforts to bring these objects together shines a light on the significance and sophistication of this lasting cultural phenomenon and its magnificent objects.
Video credit 7: Dokwaza: Last of the African Iron Masters, Mafa peoples, Cameroon (see full credit at the end of the blog post)
This video documents a reenactment of a traditional smelt by Mafa ironworkers in Lum-Ziver, Cameroon, led by master smith Dokwaza. They use a furnace type and process unique to the northern Cameroon and Nigerian border region, and no longer in use by the early 1960s. At the time of filming, Dokwaza was sixty-five years old and had not fired a smelting furnace for twenty-eight years.
Presented in three sequences, the film first introduces Dokwaza as it documents how the furnace and bellows are built. The second sequence follows the long day of the smelt: the furnace is charged with iron ore and charcoal and offerings are made; after frenzied working of the bellows accompanied by music and song, Dokwaza removes the bloom mass from the shaft. The third sequence takes place in the forge and shows the refining of the bloom and its forging into a Mafa hoe form.
Everything about Dokwaza: Last of the African Iron Masters, from the beauty of the furnace itself to the incredible stamina required to work the bellows, is jaw-dropping. Even as metalsmiths, it’s easy for us to forget the magic of creating a malleable metal ingot from nothing but the earth. It occurred to me that the ease with which we can order materials - sheet and wire in exact specifications, tubing, screws, etc. - is similar to shopping in modern grocery stores; our dissociation from growing or hunting for our food makes us lose the sense of wonder and preciousness that comes from the actual process of its production. The same is true here - it’s easy to see how ironworkers are associated with divinity in African cultures... this is not only magical, it’s a potent reminder of how much work goes into creating such a small amount of material when it’s done by hand and how precious it really is.
After reading about and virtually touring the exhibition, watching the videos, and looking closely at these pieces, I am left with a sense of wonder which feels like a gift from Ògún himself.
Many thanks to Tom for sharing this great achievement with us and deepest congratulations to the whole team on an outstanding exhibition.
Visit the Exhibition:
Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths
Fowler Museum at UCLA
Los Angeles, CA
June 3 – December 30, 2018
Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art Washington, D.C.
February 13 - October 20, 2019
Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac
November, 2019 - March 2020
- The Fowler Museum website's amazing 360-degree walkthrough feature
- Full playlist of videos associated with the show
- NY Times review of the exhibition
- Interview with Tom by Kevin Conru called The Art of Iron
- “Exhibition preview” titled Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths by Allen F. Roberts and Marla C. Berns.
- A book-length publication about the exhibition will be released in October. I will update this post when we have a link for more information and purchase.
Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths, a new exhibition lead-curated by Tom Joyce, also includes the curatorial team of Allen F. Roberts, UCLA Professor of World Arts and Cultures/Dance; Marla C. Berns, Shirley & Ralph Shapiro Director, Fowler Museum; William J. Dewey, Director, African Studies Program and Associate Professor of African Art History at Pennsylvania State University; and Henry J. Drewal, Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Seven additional advising scholars bring their specific areas of expertise to the project. Short curator biographies can be found in the Exhibition Backgrounder.
Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths is organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA. It is made possible by major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities* and in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Generous support is also provided by the Martha and Avrum Bluming Exhibition Fund with additional funding from the Fowler Exhibition Fund, Cindy Miscikowski, the Ethnic Arts Council of Los Angeles, Lee Bronson, Andrew Adelson, Richard Scheller and Susan McConnell, and Richard and Susan Ulevitch.
The publication is supported by the Thoma Foundation and the Ahmanson Foundation on the recommendation of the late Foundation Trustee Emeritus Lloyd E. Cotsen. Education programs are made possible in part by The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation.
Formally trained as a blacksmith, artist Tom Joyce is widely acknowledged as one of the foremost practitioners in the field for his early contributions to the art and science of forging iron. Apprenticing as a teenager in the early 1970s, and now working from studios in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Brussels, Belgium on forged sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos and mixed media installations, Joyce continues to examine the environmental, political and historical implications of using iron in his work. Incorporating industrially forged remnants and byproducts of large scale manufacturing, Joyce's sculptures reference this material's former life as an indispensable component used by multinational corporations, governmental agencies, and military forces around the world.
Joyce was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2003; and later that year an Aileen Osborn-Webb Award from the American Craft Council's College of Fellows; he was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art in 2004; and in 2006, received the Distinguished Artist of the Year Award from Rotary International's Foundation for the Arts; he was honored with a Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2009; was a recipient of a United States Artists Windgate Fellowship in 2011; and in 2014, was given an Honorary Doctorate from Santa Fe University of Art and Design. Joyce is a 2002 and 2013 alumni of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Art/Industry Residency program, and in 2008 was a lithography resident artist at Tamarind Institute.
Exhibiting internationally since 1981, Joyce's work has been shown at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff; Graf-Zeppelin Haus, Friedrichshafen, Germany; Exposicion Centro, Guadalajara, Mexico; Lounais-Suomen Käsi-ja Taideteollisuusoppilaitos, Mynämäki, Finland; Museum of Applied Arts, Moscow, Russia; and Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, France.
His work is in many permanent public collections, including the Museum of Arts and Design, New York; Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Detroit Institute of Art; New Mexico Museum of Art; Luce Foundation Center for American Art; Mint Museum of Art; National Metal Museum; Boston Museum of Fine Art; Tucson Museum of Art; and Yale University Art Gallery.
Since the first invitation to lecture on his work in 1983, Joyce has taught and presented in over 100 institutions, universities, and college campuses throughout the United States. Among them: Boston University, College of Fine Arts; California College of the Arts; Columbia University; Corcoran School of the Arts and Design; Cranbrook Academy of Art; Dartmouth College; Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University; Ohio University; University of Iowa; University of Minnesota; and the University of Wisconsin. As an invited U.S. delegate, panelist and keynote speaker, Joyce has also lectured at conferences and symposia in Canada, Czech Republic, Belgium, England, Finland, Ireland, Italy, South Africa, Sweden and Wales.
Recent public commissions include seven forged stainless steel sculptures, Two to One, for the Museum of Arts and Design, NYC (2014); for the newly dedicated National September 11 Memorial Museum, a 100' long quote by Virgil forged from recovered World Trade Center steel, "No day shall erase you from the memory of time" (2014); and a stainless steel and cast iron sculpture, Thicket, at the Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC (2015).
Born, William Thomas Joyce, in Tulsa, Oklahoma in1956, he moved to El Rito, New Mexico in 1974 and established his studio in Santa Fe in 1977.
1) Sounding Forms: Bells
Bell (ekpande): Kabre peoples, Togo
Blacksmith: Kossi Kao
Striker: Essozimna Ide
Bellows operator: Pouwero Yao
Video: Steven Feld in collaboration with Tom Joyce, Tcharé, Kuwdé, and Kawa, Togo, 2010
Video editing: Jeremiah Ja Richards
Local assistance: Paketam Kourakoma and Kouwenam Basseliki
Double Bell (gangokui): Ewe peoples, Togo
Blacksmith: Galbert Atakpa
Bellows operator: Hodenou Noglo
Video: Steven Feld in collaboration with Tom Joyce, Yohonou, Togo, 2008
Video editing: Jeremiah Ja Richards
Double Bell (nengbongbo): Mangbetupeoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Excerpts from Orchestre Mangbetuand Mangbetu,both 1954, filmed by Gérard De Boe, Zaire, © and courtesy of Gérard De Boe Estate, Belgium
2) Forging: The Blacksmith's Tools
Narrator: Tom Joyce
Video: Peter Kirby © Fowler Museum at UCLA
Photograph: Tom Joyce, Yohonou, Togo © 2008
Video: Steven Feld in collaboration with Tom Joyce, Yohonou, Togo © 2008, courtesy VoxLox Media
Video: Steven Feld in collaboration with Tom Joyce, Tcharé, Togo © 2010, courtesy of VoxLox Media
Video: Anne-Marie Bouttiaux, Kunima, Burkina Faso © 2012, courtesy of Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium
Video: Anne-Marie Bouttiaux, Indieli-Na and Konko, Mali © 2011, courtesy of Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium
Video:D. Paul Morris, Nicholas David, and Yves Le Bleis © 1988, courtesy Nicholas David
3) Ancestral altar (asen): Fon peoples, Republic of Bénin
Narrator: Tom Joyce
Video by Peter Kirby © Fowler Museum at UCLA
Photograph: Tom Joyce, Hountondji Compound, Republic of Bénin, ©2010
4) Staff (ọ̀pá Òrìṣà Oko): Yorùbá peoples, Nigeria
Narrator: Tom Joyce
Video: Peter Kirby © Fowler Museum at UCLA
Photograph: Henry J. Drewal & Margaret Thompson, Nigeria © 1977, Drewal Collection, courtesy Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution (EEPA 1992-028-6606)
5) Currency blade (oshele): Nkutshu, Ndengese peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Narrator: Tom Joyce
Video: Peter Kirby © Fowler Museum at UCLA
6) Lamellophone (“thumb piano”/mbira): Shona peoples, Zimbabwe
Musician: Zivanai Masango
Video: by Robin Truesdale, Colorado © 2018, courtesy of Zivanai Masango and Robin Truesdale
Performance: Harare, Zimbabwe © 2011, courtesy Mr. Gift Mugwidi
7) Dokwaza: Last of the African Iron Masters, Mafa peoples, Cameroon
Video: D. Paul Morris, Nicholas David, and Yves Le Bleis © 1988, produced in cooperation with the Canadian National Office of the United Steel Workers of America.