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The Fowler’s “Arts of Africa” Exhibits: African Blacksmiths, Swahili Artisans, Family Events

The Fowler Museum at UCLA has long been a venue that explores art and material culture primarily from Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Americas, past and present. It is generally home to 3-6 art exhibitions and also serves as a meeting ground for lectures on cultural topics, musical performances, art workshops, and more. The Fowler’s unique gift is for bringing an academic and diasporic antiquity to life, revitalizing its exhibitions with thoughtful presentations that seek to educate visitors about both about history itself and the relevance of history to modern culture.

The Fowler is currently presenting an exhibition called “Striking Iron,” which combines scholarship with objects of remarkable aesthetic beauty to create the most extensive treatment of the blacksmith’s art in Africa to date. On view through Dec. 30, the exhibition includes over 225 artworks from across the African continent, focusing predominately on the region south of the Sahara and covering a time period spanning early archeological evidence to the present day. Borrowed from American and European collections, it features currencies ranging in shapes and sizes, wood sculptures adorned with iron, musical instruments, and an array of materials used for weaponry, workmanship, and ritual.

Artist Unknown (Chokwe/Lunda peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Iron working has shaped African cultures for thousands of years, transforming economies, standards of living, and societies as a whole. Striking Iron shows the legacy of creation and technical prowess that led African blacksmiths to transform a basic natural resource into an object of massive utility and empowerment, harnessing the powers of the natural and spiritual world and effecting remarkable change to meet life’s manifold hardships.

After its presentation at the Fowler, 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. A comprehensive illustrated publication will accompany the exhibition.

Also on view at the Fowler, “World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean” explores the cultural meeting points between four regions whose historical trade and migratory routes intersected the Indian Ocean many times over: the Arabian Peninsula, Asia, Africa, and Europe. Located at the junction between the African and Indian Ocean, the Swahili coast has been a complicated center of multicultural convergence for more than a millennium, giving rise to many diverse communities that have been shaped by legion migrations across vast distances, the formation of new empires, and the creation and destruction of communities and social identities.

Artist unknown (Yombe peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo).

World on the Horizon examines Swahili arts as products of mobility and objects of encounter—as outcomes of trade and imperialism. The exhibition spans time periods to demonstrate the movements of artistic forms and preferences, as well as to illustrate the influx nature of meanings they may give rise to over the course of their histories.

The exhibition was arranged by the Krannert Museum of Art at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, curated by Prita Meier and Allyson Purpura, and funded by major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor.

Both exhibitions are open to the public daily, but you might consider the free one-day Arts of Africa Festival happening on Sunday, Nov. 4 from noon to 5 p.m. The afternoon offers gallery lectures about the current exhibitions as well as live music, storytelling, and even an iron-forging demonstration.

Nsimbi performs at the Arts of Africa Festival.

If you’d like to learn more about the African diasporic artworks, think about attending the Striking Iron Symposium—a free two-day event on Friday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, Nov. 10, from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The program features talks with artists Alison Saar and Sokari Douglas Camp discussing their own sculptural work in metal.

By: Nico Picciuto
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