Arts and crafts from west africa: casting

Fono caster, Songuifolo Traoré, modelling a mask out of wax.
Photo: Karl-Heinz Krieg, Odia (Boundiali region, Ivory Coast), 1977

Heating of the clay mold. Photo: Karl-Heinz Krieg, Gbon (Boundiali region, Côte d’Ivoire), 1978

Dancer wearing a brass mask made by Zana Ouattara from Landiougou. Photo: Karl-Heinz Krieg, Ouazomon (Boundiali region, Côte d’Ivoire), 1977

Around the middle of the 19th century, the Senufo blacksmiths took over the casting craft from the Lokos, who were originally the gunsmiths in this region. Today, the blacksmiths are, in addition to their traditional blacksmith work and occasional woodcarving work, the undisputed casters in the Senufo region.

Since time immemorial, lost-wax casting has been known in West Africa, and requires a great deal of experience and craftsmanship. The mould is modelled out of beeswax, or a natural mould is sometimes used, such as an insect or a peanut. This form is first coated with a thin layer of liquefied charcoal and then as soon as it has dried, wrapped in a clay coating. After the clay coating has dried, the wax is melted out by heating it (or the natural form is burned out from inside). A clay funnel is then built onto the opening of the clay coating, where the blacksmith lays bronze or brass waste. Then the funnel is closed with a piece of old cloth. He then thoroughly seals the funnel with clay. Once the attached clay funnel has dried, the whole mould is again thoroughly sealed with a thin clay liquid and dried. The clay coating is now in the shape of an hourglass. The founder now puts the mold into the fire the other way around, i.e. the metal-filled ball facing downwards. Once the fire has reached the correct temperature (the blacksmith can tell by the sulphur-yellow flame, whether the metal is liquid or not), he grabs the glowing clay mould and turns it around quickly so that the now liquid metal can shoot into the hollow mould. In order to obtain the cast object, the clay mould must be smashed open after cooling. This way each cast is unique. The cast cult figures, rings, bracelets and anklets as well as the amulets are aesthetically beautiful and are often collectors items for western enthusiasts. For the African, on the other hand, each of these pieces has a cultic, magical, healing, or protective significance; in other words, it has a special function for its owner, e.g., for the fortune-teller who has small bronze figures on his altar or place of sacrifice. Each of these pieces are created based on a problem, such as an illness, whereby, after consultation with the oracle, the form and embellishment with animal or human symbols are determined by the fortune-teller for the respective patient.

Bronze Masks
From the middle of the last century, the blacksmiths took over the casting of masks from the Lokos, which led to a shift of craft from one group to another. In the ensuing period, wooden Kpelie face masks were often replaced with bronze masks. The bronze masks became very popular, not least due to practical reasons because of them not being easily damaged by fire nor being broken easily. The bronze Kpelie face mask is still used traditionally today by the Senufo farmers, as well as by the blacksmith groups but only at funeral ceremonies.

Text: Karl-Heinz Krieg, 1980 From: Kunst und Kunsthandwerk aus Westafrika. With the foreword by Dr. Klaus Volprecht, Leverkusen 1980.
Translation: Mary Miller