Peace, Power and Prestige: Metal Arts in Africa

Kota-Obamba or Mindimbu artist,
Gabon, Reliquary guardian figure
(mbulu ngulu), 19th century, brass, copper, wood, collection of Drs. 
Nicole and John Dintenfass. Opposite: Oumou Sy, Senegalese (b. 1952)

The Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida is exploring the roles of metal objects in sustaining and enhancing life in African communities in the exhibition “Peace, Power and Prestige: Metal Arts in Africa.” The exhibition includes a diverse range of iron, brass, bronze, gold, copper, and silver works created by artists in sub-Saharan Africa between the 9th and 21st centuries. 

The exhibition includes body adornment and currency items proclaiming wealth and social status; staffs, scepters, weaponry, and other regalia representing leadership and authority; and amulets and sacred objects used in spiritual meditation. With more than 140 objects, the exhibition features works created by the Mande and Dogon artists of Mali; Edo, Igbo and Yoruba artists of Nigeria; Akan artists of Ghana; Kota artists of Gabon; Tusian, Gan and Lobi artists of Burkina Faso, as well as artists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia , Ethiopia, Senegal and Liberia. 

African Metalwork: Dazzling, Enduring and Transformative  

African metalworks are among the most technologically sophisticated and historically significant objects created in their times. The exhibition considers metal arts in sub- Saharan Africa not only for their aesthetic attributes and technical mastery, but for their roles in sustaining and advancing community well-being by strengthening leadership, enhancing spirituality, and shaping social interactions. 

Many African peoples recognize the fabrication of metal objects—the extraction of ore, its transformation with fire, and finally the shaping of metal by artists’ hands—as a joint effort of human, natural, and supernatural forces. Metal, through its processing, consumption, and use, forges alliances among individuals and groups, bolsters local economies, and enhances social and cultural exchanges. Metal objects have also enabled mediations and transactions that connect people—through sensory attraction in the case of body adornment, through perception of value in commerce and currency exchange, and as literal and symbolic signs of strength for leadership.

Jewelry ensemble: hair ornaments, earrings, necklace, ring, bracelet, 2017–2018, silver, gold, fibers, Harn Museum of Art Collection, museum purchase with funds from the Caroline Julier and James G. Richardson Acquisition Fund.

As a substance that is both malleable and strong, metal offers artists a means for creating dazzling forms lasting for centuries. Metal’s permanence conveys steadfastness of authority in human alliances and between humans and divine entities. Some peoples believe that metal is imbued with inherent mystical power that transcends its materiality, linking it to the supernatural world. This transcendent status of metal is a recurrent theme in the history of African metallurgical innovations and aesthetic attributes. 

As smiths mastered techniques of shaping metal, they also exploited its multisensory qualities: luminosity and color, heft, and sonority. These aesthetic properties are inscribed with cultural and religious meanings that have persisted for centuries through to today. 

The history of the primary metals used by African artists—copper, iron, and gold—as well as less commonly exploited metals, including tin, lead, silver, and their alloys, is far from complete, but certain core concepts about the visual and aesthetic properties of metal probably developed early on. Artistic developments in each of these metals took different paths directed by local and global agents and events, but it is increasingly evident that locally, African artists invented complex metallurgical processes that led to unprecedented mastery of the medium.  

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