The Blacksmith

Black and white photograph of a blacksmith axe laying on the ground with cowrie shells as an offering in Sierra Leone.
Image: John Atherton.

“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”.

― Tom Joyce, curator of “Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths”

To the percussive rhythm of the forge — clanging hammers, puffing bellows, hissing vapor — the West African blacksmith has been shaping the culture around him since the ancient, artistic, and advanced Nok civilization (500 BC), if not before. Whether the technology that forever altered human civilization was transmitted by the Yoruba god of iron, Ogun, in his descent to Earth via spiderweb or by one of the primordial Dogon Nommos cascading with his fragment of the sun, one thing is archaeologically observable: sub-Saharan Africa seems to have leapt directly from the Stone Age into the Iron Age, creating, in consequence, one of the world’s most sophisticated and diverse metalwork legacies.

Forging the Future

The West African blacksmith is perhaps the ultimate ground-breaker, both literally and figuratively, forging the future from the natural iron ores encrusted in the Earth. With his seemingly esoteric ability to transform them, the blacksmith forever revolutionized African civilization — practically, symbolically, aesthetically, and even cosmologically.

Photography of a Bida blacksmith in Nigeria repairing the head of an axe by reforging and pounding it into shape.
Bida (Nigeria) Blacksmith. Image : Nomad4Now.

His self-made hammers and anvils would create the hoe blades and sickles that would forever uplift agriculture, which, when creatively refined, would become the symbolic wands and artistic accoutrements of rite and ritual. From the simplest of implements, the Ga-Adangme blacksmith envisioned and elaborated his iconic snake-shaped rainmaking staff ; the Yoruba blacksmith, both his birded, healing Opa Osanyin and his figurative Ogun scepter, dedicated to the god of iron himself, the emblem of all Yoruba thought and action.

From forge to field, from hearth to shrine to battleground, the work of the West African blacksmith became ubiquitous; an ever flourishing collection of inventive, diverse, and technically sophisticated objects of not only functional, but of social and spiritual power. Amulets, bangles, sculptures, door locks, masks, were, and continue to be, made of, studded with, empowered by the blacksmith’s sublimely forged iron elements. So too the ritual gongs and rattles that still resonate throughout the continent, cadenced to summon ancestral spirits, to beat back malevolent forces, to amplify the moves of the traditional dancer, to announce the political, the spiritual, or the initiatory.

Percussion, from Forge to Festival:

Forging Identity

The traditional blacksmith’s identity is wrought by the almost-mythical prestige that he commands and by the near-mystical power that he wields and manipulates, after an extensive, secretive initiation. The Mandé smith is a veritable force-tamer, a Nyamakala, with his uncanny, transmundane ability to harness the élan vital that is believed to animate all things. 

Ever handling Earth’s mysterious elements — striking, molding, manipulating, miraculously transforming them— and ever respiring the vaporous, spiritually-potent emanations of his forge, the blacksmith stands apart from all others. It is this “otherness”, a status that is often casted, endogamous, hereditary and positioned somewhere between the ethereal and the mundane, that singles out the Kapsiki blacksmith as a diviner par excellence or his Kpelle homologue, the consummate healer. So uniquely powerful is the Dogon or Edo blacksmith that even reduplicating his forging tools, scaled in miniature and strung on chains, transfers his vigor, verve, and vivacity to the wearer.

Photography of an anvil in Bida, Nigeria, on which a blacksmith pounds the hot, glowing metal into the desired shape.
Anvil. Image: Nomad4Now.

Forging Myths 

“When striking the anvil, blacksmiths recuperate part of the force they have given to the Earth. To strike at night is to repel what has been attracted. And that is why it is forbidden not only to the blacksmith, but to every man, to strike, at night, either iron, stone, or ground. Whether distinct or muffled, no blow of the hammer or pestle must resound in the silence.”

— Ogotemmêli *

Just as the metallurgical process of smelting, used to extract impurities, has been honed over time, the lore surrounding blacksmiths too has been culled, purified, and refined since their appearance. 

The simple gesture of striking metal had, in and of itself, the power to re-shape even core cosmological belief structures. Throughout West Africa, the primordial blacksmith is mythicized and exalted: he who, with his celestial forge and bellows, dried out the Earth so that man might walk (Igbo); he who secured movable joints so that humankind, too, could hammer and hoe (Dogon); he who first arrived in the form of an iron sword to prepare the terrain for people (Fon). It was also he who assured the first rains (Mandé) and who, towering at over 25 meters, engendered the reduced-sized humans of today (Lobi).

Photography of bellows in Bida (Nigeria). The blacksmith operates the billows rhythmically, which are opened and closed by alternate pumping by means of sticks.
Billows. Image: Nomad4Now.

Reforging, Reappropriating, and Recycling

“On a continent where art can often be defined as things or actions employed as a means of managing power, [blacksmiths] illustrate the force of African agency, of using power — call it art — to create new forms.”  — Holland Cotter.

Blacksmiths have always been masters of renewal and transmutation, whether redirecting ancestral powers, reappropriating Earth’s elements, or repurposing pre-existing forms. Today’s blacksmiths are no exception, creatively recycling salvaged material and fusing it into their work: old refrigerator coils are recast as ancestral asen, portable funerary altars (Fon), yesterday’s discarded truck wheels and leaf springs become today’s axes, rattles or chimes, and the traditional god of iron, Ogun himself, is metamorphosed into the modern-day deity of electronic components and reclaimed metals.

Just as iron upon anvil, the West African blacksmith has proved to be ever malleable, ardent, and enduring.

Photography of a forge in Kebbi (Nigeria), with a manual bellow wheel and other blacksmith instruments.
Kebbi Forge. Image: Seun James Taiwo.

“We must not offend the blacksmith”  — Musician Issa Sory Bamba 

(Numu Fasa, praise-song for the blacksmith)

Sources and Further Reading

Books:

  • McNaughton, P. (1993). The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa (Traditional Arts of Africa). Bloomington, USA: Indiana University Press.
  • Belcher, S. (2006). African Myths of Origin. Penguin Classics
  • Griaule, M. (1965). Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. International African Institute by the Oxford University Press.*
  • Van Beek, W. (2015). The Forge and the Funeral: The Smith in Kapsiki/Higi Culture. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Online Articles:

  • Lancy, D. F. (1980). Becoming a Blacksmith in Gbarngasuakwelle. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 11(4), 226-274. Retrieved February 24, 2019, from AnthroSource.
  • Adekola, K. (2011). Dynamics of Metal Working Traditions in West Africa. African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter, 9(1), Article 5. Retrieved February 24, 2019, from ScholarWorks.
  • McNaughton, P. Art of the Bamana Blacksmith. Retrieved February 24, 2019, from University of Iowa’s Art and Life in Africa.
  • Goldner, J. (1995). Blacksmiths, Mali, 1995. Retrieved February 24, 2019, from JanetGoldner.
  • Ross, E. G. (October 2002). The Age of Iron in West Africa. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Retrieved February 24, 2019, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Joyce, T. (1998). Life Force at the Anvil. Retrieved February 24, 2019, from ArtMetal.
  • Berns, M. & Roberts, A. (Spring 2018). Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths. African Arts, 51(1), 66–85. Retrieved February 24, 2019, from Fowler Museum.
  • Cotter, H. (April 16, 2012). Mali, Art as Real as Life Itself. The New York Times. Retrieved February 24, 2019, from The New York Times.
  • Krimmer, C. M. Ancestral Asen: Adaptability of the Fon people of Benin. Retrieved February 24, 2019, from Academia.edu.
  • UNESCO. (2002). Iron Roads in Africa: Revisiting the History. Retrieved February 24, 2019, from UNESCO.

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