Museum  February 18, 2022  Nia Bowers

A Must-See African Metal Arts Exhibit: “Peace, Power & Prestige”

Collection of Drs. John and Nicole Dintenfass. Photo by Nia Bowers.

Ethiopian artist, Ethiopia, detail of Shield, 19th - 20th century. Brass, cloth, and animal hide.

The continent of Africa offers some of the richest art history and most intricate inventions to humanity. The metal art made by African blacksmiths from innumerable societies is no exception.

Consequently, the arrival of a traveling exhibition entitled Peace, Power & Prestige: Metal Arts in Africa comes as no surprise. Represented in everything from jewelry and weaponry to currency and identity, the importance of metalwork in Africa spans decades.

Wikimedia Commons. Photo by ALYBA.

Contemporary African metalsmith in Mali.

The origin of blacksmiths in Africa dates as far back as the sixth century BCE. Around 1500 BCE, Western Africa would receive its first notable blacksmiths. These metalsmiths possessed skills that no society within the continent had yet witnessed. The metal art appeared as though it were some form of magic. Consequently, the works of art these blacksmiths created often caused specific communities to express fear and resentment.

Fortunately, not all African societies shunned the talents of these metalworkers. Many African citizens admired the results of the metalsmiths’ labors, henceforth giving the artists a meritorious social status. The ogboni/osugbo society, which holds Yoruba artists and metalsmiths, is one of many that has benefited greatly from the work of its blacksmiths.

Collection of Drs. Nicole and John Dintenfass, L 2021.14.68.

Kota, Obamba, or Ndumu artist, Gabon, Reliquary Guardian Figure (Mbulu Ngulu), 19th century. Brass, copper, wood. 21 1/2 x 11 5/8 x 3 1/2 in.

Curated by Dr. Susan Cooksey, the exhibition displays metalwork from as early as the ninth century BCE to nearly the present and features pieces pulled from around sixty different art collections. One such collection permanently resides at the exhibition’s current site—the Ackland Art Museum of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

During a “Curator Conversations” event led by one of UNC’s art history professors, Victoria Rovine, Dr. Cooksey offered a hefty helping of details on some of the key pieces in the exhibit. She noted that, while selecting metalworks to go on display, she wanted to include pieces that were not only intriguing and striking but also illustrated “innovative techniques that show the whole scope.”

african metalwork. Gan artist, Burkina Faso, Funerary bracelet (bĩgè sĩmba), 19th century. Copper alloy.
Photo by Vincent Girier Dufournier.

Gan artist, Burkina Faso, Funerary bracelet (bĩgè sĩmba), 19th century. Copper alloy. Collection of Drs. Nicole and John Dintenfass.

Igbo artist, Nigeria, Woman’s Anklets, 19th - 20th century. Brass, iron. Collection of Drs. John and Nicole Dintenfass. Photo by Nia Bowers.
Photo by Nia Bowers.

Igbo artist, Nigeria, Woman’s Anklets, 19th - 20th century. Brass, iron. Collection of Drs. John and Nicole Dintenfass.

That leads us to the first metalwork worthy of mention—a funerary bracelet molded with the use of copper alloy. This bracelet, crafted by a Gan artist of Burkina Faso or Ghana sometime in the nineteenth century, holds reservations to priests buried in royal cemeteries. Dr. Cooksey mentioned the bracelet is most likely her favorite piece of metalwork throughout the entire exhibition and explained that she had “never seen anything like it,” making it a rare privilege to view up close as it sits in its glass casing.

Jewelry often functioned as an identifier of social status and ranking. In addition to bracelets, African women in various societies wore anklets to indicate wealth. An Igbo artist from Nigeria formulated a pair of brass anklets in the nineteenth century that impaired its bearer. Despite it being near impossible to walk, many Igbo women would continue to adorn themselves with these enormous anklets to indicate their availability before marriage.

African Metalwork. Ethiopian artist, Ethiopia, Shield, 19th - 20th century. Brass, cloth, and animal hide. Collection of Drs. John and Nicole Dintenfass. Photo by Nia Bowers.
Photo by Nia Bowers.

Ethiopian artist, Ethiopia, detail of Shield, 19th - 20th century. Brass, cloth, and animal hide. Collection of Drs. John and Nicole Dintenfass.

African Metalwork. Ethiopian artist, Ethiopia, Shield, 19th - 20th century. Brass, cloth, and animal hide. Collection of Drs. John and Nicole Dintenfass. Photo by Nia Bowers.
Photo by Nia Bowers.

Ethiopian artist, Ethiopia, Shield, 19th - 20th century. Brass, cloth, and animal hide. Collection of Drs. John and Nicole Dintenfass. 

While jewelry was a key item that these metalsmiths produced, more utilitarian metalwork equally held significance for Africans in terms of farming, hunting, and battle. In the nineteenth or twentieth century, an Ethiopian artist developed a shield of brass, cloth, and animal hide. These delicately-designed shields briefly made warfare more efficient before animal hide became a poor material for protection.

A complete discussion of the pieces within this collection could fill a book. If you are in the area, Peace, Power & Prestige: Metal Arts in Africa is an absolute must-see. And if Chapel Hill seems too far a reach, Davenport, Iowa, and New York City will soon serve as temporary homes for this stunning assortment of art.

About the Author

Nia Bowers

 

Nia Bowers is a freelance writer and native of North Carolina currently residing in Chapel Hill, NC. She is a 2020 graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, GA with four years of archival experience and a natural bent for all things musical, historical, and literary.

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