This exhibition features approximately fifty-five works of African ceramics and iron art, including vessels, musical instruments, currency objects, sculpted figures, staffs, tools and ritual objects. The objects come primarily from the countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Iron and clay are extremely important materials and media in West African culture. They are valued not only for their practical use in the fabrication of essential tools, weapons, currency, and vessels, but also for their spiritual potency. Objects made of iron and clay play important roles in rites of passage, healing rituals, divination, governance, religious practice, and conflict mediation. Many myths and legends recount the importance of the blacksmith and the potter in African society.
Throughout Africa, blacksmiths are generally born into their occupational specialty, and may only marry women from other blacksmith families. While the men smelt and forge iron, the women in their families specialize in ceramics, creating vessels for daily use and ritual objects. It is fire that transforms raw clay and iron ore into the secular and sacred objects that are essential to the well-being of African communities. This specialized occupational knowledge is jealously guarded by these men and women, who acknowledge that it was originally imparted by a divine source, usually as part of a sacred covenant.
The ceramics in this exhibition are on loan to the Museum from The Dick Jemison Collection. Jemison, an artist who divides his time between Birmingham and the American Southwest, is interested in tribal arts from across the globe. The iron objects in the exhibition were given to the Museum in 2004 by Mort and Sue Fuller, of New York.