Forge, Foundry & Mechanical Joinings: Metal Working in Mali
As part of her Fulbright research, Janet apprenticed with a family of blacksmiths in Dioro Mali for several weeks. A metal worker myself, the residency taught her to appreciate the volumetric nature of metal as well as gaining an appreciation of the role of blacksmithing in Malian culture. Janet also worked with tin smiths in Segou who made pails and trunks from recycled industrial drums and visited a foundry in Dioro where they cast aluminum cooking pots in sand molds.
When I arrived at the forge to begin, I watched as Abdoulaye made a small knife blade, cutting a small rectangle of thin steel. He began to form it, heating and tapping. Shortly he indicated that we should change places and I should sit on the low wooden seat that was his place and give it a try. He watched me carefully but gave me enough room to work. It was awkward at first. I’m more used to tools with padding on the handles to cushion my hands and springs to amplify the action and to make the gripping easier. It was hard to get used to the beautiful hand made tools. I began by making the first of many small knife blades which would soon have carved wooden pyro-engraved handles. Some of the knives had blades on one side and others had blades on both.
As you can imagine, I was an object of much curiosity and there were many people who came to watch. Sometimes I feared for their safety as they leaned close to where I was tapping the metal to make the blade. There was an old woman who made a wide arc to avoid the forge for the whole time I was there, sure that I represented evil to be avoided.
The blacksmiths quickly became very protective of me and proud of my production. When people stopped by and wondered what was going on, they would show the doubters my many knives. I brought images of my welded steel sculptures to show them. They all looked with interest and asked questions. They wanted to know how I made the work and I drew pictures in the sand.
After a week, someone wanted to buy one of my knives. So Abdoulaye finished the wooden handle he had made, straightened and checked the blade and put their mark on it- three nicks and sold it for 25 CFA! ( There are about 500 CFA to the dollar.) He gave me the money. I tried to refuse since my labor constituted a small part of the labor in it. With the 25 CFA I bought 2 mangos. After that, I didn’t want to sell my knives and this refusal of income was bizarre to the blacksmiths. She who didn’t come looking for money they would say from time to time.