Photograph © Tom Joyce, 2010

Ironworking in sub-Saharan Africa is a male-dominated technology that involves elements of female power to succeed. The ability to create with iron is often understood as a divine gift, and those who affect its transformation are revered—and sometimes feared—for their capabilities.
Male blacksmiths are responsible for preparing workable iron through the long smelting process before they can then forge the iron, heating it to white-hot temperatures so that it can be readily shaped by a blacksmith’s hammer and further manipulated with punches, chisels, and other tools.

Looking Closely: Gelede Mask

Spend 2-3 minutes looking closely at the artwork below, which was carved from wood in the mid-20th century.

Attributed to Alaiye Adeisa Etuobe (active mid-20th century, Yorùbá peoples, Nigeria)
Gelede Mask, mid-20th century
Wood, laundry bluing, pigments
Fowler Museum at UCLA, X70.990; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Hughes

Gelede masquerades celebrate the spiritual powers of “our mothers” and reflect community gender dynamics. Whether by satirizing antisocial behavior or praising dutiful individuals and groups, masks are used to teach, critique, and entertain while shaping public opinion about current events. This Gelede mask faithfully depicts a blacksmith and his coworkers at the forge, each executing a specific task as they contend with the dangers of high heat to fashion objects of purpose and beauty. Alaiye Adeisa Etuobe, the artist thought to have carved the mask, may have been a blacksmith or a member of a blacksmith’s family, given his acute interpretation of the workings of the forge.

After looking at this artwork, write your answers to the following questions:

  • What details on this artwork reveal that the figures are blacksmiths?
  • How might this mask be used to teach viewers about iron forging?
  • Artists carefully contemplate several components while making their art, including the materials they will use, the size of the work, the colors employed, and the composition or organization of elements in the work. If you were to create an artwork depicting blacksmiths at work, what would you make? Take into account the components listed.