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The Hands Behind the Iron

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By Cameron Vernali '20

Published May 17, 2018 3:00 PM


A new exhibition at the Fowler showcases the work of African blacksmiths.


This knife–shaped currency called an oshele, the double clapperless bell and the ceremonial adze are among the 225 objects that will be on display. Courtesy of the Fowler Museum.

You may not realize it, but iron surrounds you. Iron is in our blood, it supports the creation of various buildings and it is even in popular culture with sayings such as “iron grip.” While iron may seem like a common part of our society today, it was a huge advancement for people long ago — especially in Africa, where iron-working enabled people to advance and gain more power, both culturally and socially.

Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths honors the art of smelting and forging iron by African metal wielders from the 19th and 20th centuries. The exhibition will be on display at the Fowler Museum from June 2 to December 30 before internationally touring other art museums.

The collection on view includes a vast assortment of over 225 iron pieces, ranging from musical instruments to blades to currencies and a myriad of art pieces. The exhibition is structured around eight thematic sections and includes components — such as a seven-stop video tour — to help the viewers grasp a more interpretive understanding.The breadth of the project is meant to illuminate to visitors how many different uses and forms iron embodied.

“There are many stories to tell in Striking Iron, and each one brings respect and admiration to the time-honored and even divine work of smelting and forging iron in Africa,” says Marla Berns, director of the Fowler Museum and a co-curator of the exhibition.

Iron-working through smelting and forging began in Africa over 2,500 years ago and was a fundamental part of a community’s success. It would provide benefits such as security, more power for kings and soldiers, and prosperity through farming techniques only possible with iron-made tools.

The exhibition is the result of decades of research, led by Tom Joyce, Allen Roberts, Berns, William Dewey and Henry Drewel. Joyce, a MacArthur Fellow trained in the art of forging iron, noted that skilled African blacksmiths can move metal like clay when the iron becomes white-hot. Beyond the visible strength it holds, iron was also believed to contain power from the natural and spiritual worlds and to enhance sacred acts and help with life’s challenges.

“With astonishing technical prowess these artists have, for over 2,500 years, created the essential and the conceptual, the visually compelling and the sublime,” Joyce says. “It is a privilege to share their masterful achievements.”

To view the original article from the UCLA Newsroom, visit https://ucla.in/2HJMz5Z.

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