Though its abundance may often be taken for granted, iron is so common, so all-pervasive, and so fundamental to humankind across the globe that it literally exists in our blood, as the Fowler Museum at UCLA's recent exhibition, Striking Iron, poetically reminds us. On view from June 3 through December 30, 2018 and then traveling to two other venues, Striking Iron continued the Fowler's tradition of producing intellectually rigorous yet lyrical shows in breathtaking color and style. The exhibition explored the contribution of African blacksmiths, practitioners, and artists to the history and use of iron as they transform this common metal into objects of life-changing empowerment, prestige, utility, and spiritual potency—topics deftly interwoven throughout the exhibition, utilizing effortlessly mixed “high” African arts with objects of daily use. While lacking a contemporary component, objects in the exhibition extended up to the late twentieth century, and the exhibition continued a conversation in the field of African arts that focuses less on binaries, or the policing of genre and border, and more on the fluidity of these constructions.
Striking Iron featured more than 225 works of art spanning two centuries and originating from over 100 cultural groups in predominantly West and Central Africa, including currency blades, swords, hoes, anvils, musical instruments, and bodily adornment. The show was curated by a team of heavyweights, led by artist and trained smith Tom Joyce (diverging from the status quo, this places an artist rather than a trained curator at the helm), and accompanied by the intellectual talents of African art historians Allen F. Roberts, Henry J. Drewal, and William J. Dewey, as well as Fowler Museum Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director Marla C. Berns. Joyce was singularly featured in several talking head videos paired with in-depth object focuses interspersed throughout the exhibition. Joyce thus effectively served as the lead voice of Striking Iron, where visitors may have found a plurality of voices—particularly those of Africans themselves, considered here only through cosmologies and origin stories—to be more compelling.
The exhibition began by visually and viscerally birthing the visitor through an immersive metamorphic tunnel of lava and blood (Fig. 1). Created through layering images of sparks from striking red-hot iron, molten iron at the Earth's core, and the flow of smelted iron set to the pulse of heartbeat and hammer, it effectively transported the visitor from the hustle and bustle of the everyday into the focused space of contemplation. One couldn't help but feel a connection to iron as central to humanity—in the earth's soil, human blood, and Africa's history. After emerging from the tunnel, the visitor was greeted by a handful of superlative works that drove home several of the exhibition's eight thematic sections. These zones progressed from the hammer-and-anvil basics to the “bloom” of creativity that represents some of the most politically and intellectually sophisticated works of art in iron. For this reviewer, the most compelling of these works was a Songye nkishi figure with its iron coiffure bristles and numerous medicinal bundles—a power figure so “hot” that it can only be manipulated using the slender iron rods attached by a circlet to its waist, projecting out far below its feet (Fig. 2). Each section was sumptuously complemented by a range of visual and audio materials, including Joyce's commentary, historical photographs, and soundscapes. A large number of subsection spotlights expanded upon thematic focuses, but the cavalcade of words may have felt overwhelming to some. Regardless, the extensive wealth of information was exhilarating and illustrated how utterly and passionately Striking Iron was researched.
After an artfully arranged corner and wall dedicated to domestic tools of the blacksmith's trade, from anvils and hammers to an array of bellows both plain and figurative (the “lungs” of the blacksmith's practice), “Iron's Material Transformations” was anchored by several notable pieces (Fig. 3). A sophisticated Chokwe/Lunda ceremonial axe with an incised bifurcated blade showcased a bewildering array of techniques and proficiencies by a masterful smith. A magnificent nineteenth century Sorko or Bozo oil lamp (fitula) fitted with forty-six cups references Islamic and Judaic traditions, and a seventeenth century Kuba figure attributed to a court artist represented the renowned blacksmith known as Myeel (Fig. 4). Its enormous and eerie yet sturdy hands curve around a void where tools were once grasped and invited the wonder of the blacksmith's craft.
The next section, “Africa's Iron Origins” dove beneath the surface of iron's 2,500-year-old relationship with humans. Three subsection texts and images provided in-depth focus on the archaeological excavations and scientific explorations of Great Zimbabwe, Kamilamba in Congo/Kinshasa, and Campo in Cameroon. A photo mural of earthen smelting furnaces, field footage, and bar currencies similarly illustrated the transformation of iron from bloom (the porous mass of iron and slag created from smelting) to bar, both in the past and more recently. Other spotlights associated with this section and the next highlighted the supernatural and cosmological explanations of smithing, the importance of oral traditions, and iron's intricate relationship with power, prestige, and knowledge.
One of the most thrilling moments of the exhibition, “Sustenance from the Anvil” explained the agricultural or utilitarian use of iron implements and then illustrated how unearthly and fantastical they become when conceived apart from labor. Viewers encountered an otherworldly Mumuye vessel with rainmaking wands that reached out towards them at all angles, not unlike Medusa's serpentine tendrils (Fig. 5, front right). Nearby (Fig. 5, back center) three Ga'anda ritual sickles with spiky mohawks just as exhibitionist as the famous punk rock version of this hairstyle projected from a platform. At moments like this, the rather poetic nature of the texts and the sheer inventiveness of the works made the seemingly dull surfaces shine, reminding visitors that these are far more than utilitarian crafts.
Proceeding into the next gallery, “Iron's Empowering Roles,” indicated by a change in wall color from the cool blues and purples of the previous spaces to greens, grays, and olives, the attention shifted from functionality to iron's more ephemeral qualities. Ornate and breathtaking asen staffs were showcased next to one of many Tom Joyce videos. Elegant herbalist's staffs from Nigeria were positioned across from a text and selection of objects focusing on the rise of political economies through Luba iron arts. In this section, one encountered the dizzying force of power figures, from Songye, Yombe, and Kongo nkisi/nkishis to furious Fon bocios and a superior Luba memory board (lukasa) on loan from the Brooklyn Museum (Fig. 6).
Passing underneath the buttress-like architectural curves orchestrated by installation designer Sebastian Clough, Striking Iron pivoted from political power to physical force. Casework featured an impressive array of knives, both prestige and utilitarian, and blades of war and violence—kept from view of younger attendees by curves and projecting or lipped platforms (Fig. 7). Here an inspiring central case featured Islamic calligraphic blades of Mahdist Sudan, which incorporate not “pseudo-Arabic” but the divine word of God. Visitors learned the use of axes and adzes in punctuating the eloquence of speech, and the role that Kuba ikul play in forging memory. A focus area at the back wall explored the syncretic forging of Christianity through Kongo swords of status and Ethiopian hand crosses, as well as the ceremonial use of blades and staffs amongst various peoples. To this reviewer, the impossibly original curves of Ekonda blades (ikakalaka) displayed by both men and women were the winners of this section.
The final two sections, “Blades of Value” and “Sounding Forms,” featured the means to monetize and melodize iron through bridewealth bundles, currency spears, shovel-like blades, and lamellophones (Fig. 8). The most poignant moment of “Blades of Value” was found in a case featuring less-sophisticated European copies of African currencies meant to destabilize indigenous value systems. In the same case, plain iron bars and label text described the role iron played in the trade of enslaved Africans (Fig. 9). A design coup in “Sounding Forms” was the bell-shaped platform mimicking the shape of various musical instruments that graced its top, and the dueling video screens opposite one another that magically coordinated music and rhythm without feeling cacophonous.
Overall, Striking Iron was a triumph, its greatest strengths being the exquisite quality of the artworks, the accessibility of the content, and the unique design. The exhibition pulled together an impressive array of loans from private and public collections, managed to showcase women's arts despite the overtly male dominance of blacksmithing, and artfully and elaborately illustrated the many layered ways that iron is created, used, interpreted, displayed, imagined, and performed. While iron may seem to be a solid, sturdy form, Striking Iron demonstrated just how fluid, dynamic, and potent it really is.
After closing at the Fowler Museum, Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths traveled to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC (April 17-October 20, 2019) and the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris (November 2019-March 2020). Its highly anticipated publication of the same name, edited by Allen Roberts with Tom Joyce and Marla C. Berns, William Dewey, Henry Drewal, and Candice Goucher (Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2019; 500 pp., 500+ ill.) includes essays by sixteen authors (including the exhibition's associated curators) and is expected to accompany it to these venues. The publication is sure to be an impressive and extensive scholarly endeavor and promises to be an essential companion and permanent tribute to such an alluring exhibition.