The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa

The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa

The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa

The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa


... finely crafted scholarship. Elegant and graceful, yet packed with knowledge and information, it embodies the aesthetic qualities which it describes and explores." —American Ethnologist

The text is detailed and informative, and enjoyable reading... " —Choice

The Mande Blacksmith is an important book... sensitive, sympathetic, multifaceted, and thorough... " —African Arts

McNaughton's Mande Blacksmiths is undeniably the most profound study of African artists yet published." —Ethnoarts

... penetrating... McNaughton boldly grapples with the thorniest issues related to his subject and articulates them with clarity and precision." —International Journal of African Historical Studies

... a work in the best tradition of ethnographic research.... critical reappraisal, innovative inquiry, and fresh observation... make this book an invaluable fund of new material on Mande societies... " —American Anthropologist

McNaughton... provides an important interpretation of these artists' conceptual place as members of a complex culture." —Religious Studies Review

Examining the artistic, technological, social, and spiritual dimensions of Mande blacksmiths, who are the sculptors of their society, McNaughton defines these artists’ conceptual place as extraordinary members of a complex culture.


Blacksmiths in sub-Saharan Africa occupy confusing social spaces, as if they lived in two conflicting dimensions. They are at once glorified and shunned, feared and despised, afforded special privileges and bounded by special interdictions. To western observers, the status of smiths in African societies seems enigmatic, and most authors, from the earliest colonial officers and missionaries to contemporary scholars, have felt hard pressed to make sense of it. a statement of the dilemma is provided by anthropologist Laura Makarius:

The status of the blacksmith in tribal societies poses one of the most puzzling
problems of anthropology. By a strange paradox, this noted craftsman, whose
bold and meritorious services are indispensable to his community, has been
relegated to a position outside the place of society, almost as an “untouch
able.” Regarded as the possessor of great magical powers, held at the same
time in veneration and contempt, entrusted with duties unrelated to his craft
or to his inferior social status, that make of him performer of circumcision
rites, healer, exorcist, peace-maker, arbiter, counselor, or head of a cult, his
figure in what may be called the “blacksmith complex,” presents a mass of

In the vast savanna lands of the Western Sudan among the large group of societies that speak Mande languages, there is a third dimension to this problem: here, the Mande blacksmiths are also important artists, making most of their culture’s wood and iron sculpture. This art, along with the other things they do, gives smiths important roles in everyone else’s professional, social, and spiritual lives, thereby putting them in a surprisingly prominent position, given their enigmatic status.

How can artists fill so many other roles, and how do these other roles influence their art? This book seeks a preliminary answer to these questions. Exploring the principal roles of the Mande smiths, it shows that their work as artists is enhanced, in a sense even made possible, by their activities as technicians, healers, sorcerers, and mediators. At the same time it demonstrates that all the work they do is aimed at shaping the environments and the individuals around them, while their social status both enhances their work and is the result of it.

Officers and missionaries of the colonial era were the first to write at length about Mande culture. Early in this century, Father Joseph Henry described the sculpture types. Over the next few decades, Maurice Delafosse, Louis Tauxier, Charles Monteil, and Henri Labouret provided useful materi-

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