For most people, African art generally conjures images of wooden masks and figures. The history of collecting African art in the West focused almost exclusively on the same and most museum collections are primarily groups of these wooden objects. However, the spectrum of African art is far broader and the traditional African artisan explored all available materials in their pre-modern world including metal.
Archaeological evidence points to the great antiquity of metal work in Africa. The development of the skills for converting raw minerals, through the alchemy of fire, into objects of artistic and spiritual potency is ancient. The role of the blacksmith in many African cultures became one of mystical power. Blacksmiths were both revered and feared for their magical abilities.
This exhibition explores the broad spectrum of the blacksmith’s artistry. Though some are
weapons, few pieces are strictly utilitarian. Many of the iron, bronze and brass alloy pieces incorporate symbols of the spiritual world of the community, while others celebrate wealth through ostentatious use of status symbols, superb craftsmanship and lavish use of precious material. Many of the figures are votives used in divination whose meaning is only understood by the supplicant who commissioned the piece and the blacksmith who made it. The work of the African blacksmith could be found in the kitchen or in the shrine, on the person as jewelry or on the battlefield, or in royal treasuries which were filled with fantastic metal currency tokens.
The breadth of items included in the exhibition spans centuries, geography and many cultures. Highlights include superb bronze cuffs from the Ibo of Nigeria, brass helmets from the Senufo of Mali, rare currency tokens from Liberia and miniature iron votive figures that share much in common, visually, with masterpieces of 20th century Western sculpture.