Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths


“Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths,” organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA, will examine how the smith’s craft extends from the production of the most basic of domestic tools to the creation of a corpus of inventive, diverse, and technically sophisticated vehicles of social and spiritual power. The project draws on decades of research by its curatorial team, led by artist Tom Joyce, a MacArthur Fellow originally trained as a blacksmith, who lends his technical expertise and nearly three decades of substantive research and study of African ironwork to this project. Working closely with him is a team of co-curators: Henry J. Drewal, Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wiscons in Madison; Allen F. Roberts, UCLA Professor of World Arts and Cultures/Dance; William J. Dewey, Associate Professor of African Art History at Pennsylvania State University; and Marla C. Berns, Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director at the Fowler Museum. In addition, a team of seven international scholars has served as project consultants and content specialists: Rowland Abíódún, Shadreck Chirikure, Candice Goucher, Manuel Jordán, Colleen Kriger, Scott MacEachern, and Patrick McNaughton. Each team member—including additional authors contributing to the book-length publication accompanying the exhibition—brings focused knowledge of a distinctive perspective on African ironworking.

Artist unknown (Ndengese peoples, DRC) Throwing knife currency (oshele), 19th century

For more than two millennia, ironworking has shaped African cultures in the most fundamental ways. Striking Iron reveals the history of invention and technical sophistication that led African blacksmiths to transform one of Earth’s most basic natural resources into objects of life-changing utility, empowerment, prestige, spiritual potency, and astonishing artistry. The exhibition will examine how the blacksmiths’ virtuosic works can harness the powers of the natural and spiritual world, effect change and ensure protection, prestige, and status, assist with life’s challenges and transitions, and enhance the efficacies of sacred acts such as ancestor veneration, healing, fertility, and prophecy. Following its presentation in Los Angeles the exhibition will travel to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C., and the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris.

“The traveling exhibition will present over 225 diverse artworks from across the African continent, concentrating on the region south of the Sahara and covering a time period spanning early archaeological evidence of ironworking to the present day. The works selected date mostly from the early nineteenth to the late twentieth century, with many documented in the field and others coming from American and European public and private collections, including early European colonial collections.” — Allen Roberts & Marla Berns, Spring 2018