Art historian part of NEH grant-winning team for African blacksmithing exhibit

Stephanie Swindle Thomas
September 05, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — William J. Dewey, associate professor of art history in Penn State's College of Arts and Architecture and director of the African Studies Program in the College of the Liberal Arts, is part of a curatorial team that received a $250,000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant for a UCLA Fowler Museum exhibition on African blacksmithing.

Dewey is co-curator of the exhibition, titled "Striking Iron: The Art of the African Blacksmith," which includes more than 225 sub-Saharan works of art assembled from public and private collections and dating from early archaeological times to the contemporary period. The exhibition opens in June 2018.

“The project is a lot bigger than the other exhibitions I’ve curated, and it requires more funding, which is why having the support of the NEH is so important,” said Dewey, whose specific contributions to the project have been coordinating the archaeological information for the exhibit and contributing to several chapters on ancient iron and iron in central Africa for an accompanying book. “This exhibition encompasses a broad swath of the continent, taking a comprehensive look at one material and its incredible impact.”

The exhibition will be the most thorough display of African blacksmithing ever assembled. Along with Dewey, the curatorial team includes master blacksmith and MacArthur Fellow Tom Joyce; Allen F. Roberts, professor of world arts and cultures at UCLA; Henry John Drewal, Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Marla C. Berns, Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

“We’ve been working on this project for about eight years — six since the Fowler Museum committed to the show — and have made hundreds of emails and calls to each other,” Dewey explained. “The team meets in person as often as we can. Three weeks ago, several of us were at the same conference in Ghana.”

An experienced metalworker, Dewey majored in studio art with an emphasis in sculpture, primarily welding and casting, at the University of Minnesota before receiving his master of arts in art history from Northwestern University and his doctorate in art history from Indiana University. Many of his publications, including his master’s thesis, focus on metalwork — everything from the artistic production of the blacksmith-carvers to manufacture and usage of African art forms in iron and copper. However, the fieldwork and interaction with blacksmiths that accompanied his research have been the most invaluable parts to understanding the intricacies and meaning behind the iron arts of Africa.

Dewey hopes that the exhibition shows its viewers how inventive African blacksmithing is and how it has permeated all aspects of life in Africa for thousands of years.

“Africa skipped the Bronze Age and went right into the Iron Age,” he noted. “Iron plays a multifaceted role in Africa, serving as everything from objects of protection and warfare to tools for food growing and sustenance. The significance iron has played as a symbol of social status and its use in ritual implements is evident in the stunning beauty of the objects, but is also subtly manifest in how they are made.”

Blacksmiths in Africa often have a strong historical connection with its kings, as is seen in a ritual where a new king is struck with an anvil on the shins to symbolically transform an ordinary mortal into a king — something Dewey admits he would never have learned without spending time among Luba blacksmiths in the Congo. African blacksmiths often make symbolic connections between their work and fertility. Shona iron-smelting furnaces, for example, are created in the shape of a woman, for the furnace is seen as giving birth to iron, just as a woman would give birth to a child.

“Even African iron currency, made in a wide array of astonishing shapes, is connected to life events in form and function,” explained Dewey. “They were often used for the negotiation of dowries, and the currencies often take the physical shape of tools such as hoe blades, and so are equated with human labor and the hoped-for fertility these weddings will bring.”

The exhibition will include examples of African currency, royal objects, diagrams and photographs of archaeological discoveries, and multimedia displays. George Lazopoulos, NEH senior program officer in the division of public programs, noted the proposal’s emphasis on Africa as an innovator in blacksmithing and “spearheading iron technology” was particularly exciting to the grant-evaluating panelists.

The NEH’s mission of “supporting high-quality projects and programs in the humanities and making the humanities available to all Americans” aligns with the Fowler’s proposal to travel the exhibition. "Striking Iron" will open at the Fowler Museum at UCLA in June 2018 and travel to the National Museum of African Art–Smithsonian Institution and the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris.

  • Iron-smelting reconstruction (making iron from iron ore) organized by William J. Dewey in 1988 among the Njanja subgroup (Chief Ranga’s village) of the Shona People of Zimbabwe.

    Iron-smelting reconstruction (making iron from iron ore) organized by William J. Dewey in 1988 among the Njanja subgroup (Chief Ranga’s village) of the Shona people of Zimbabwe.

    IMAGE: William J. Dewey
  • Dewey talks about African art at the Palmer Museum of Art.

    William Dewey talks about African art at the Palmer Museum of Art. 

    IMAGE: Stephanie Swindle
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Last Updated September 05, 2017