In Krofrom, Ghana, a 50-year-old town’s rising brassworking industry begins with threads of beeswax. And, through dedication, technical precision and creative insight by the town’s brass casters, it endures. “Casting Tradition: Contemporary Brassworking in Ghana,” an exhibition in U-M’s Exhibit Museum of Natural History, examines the nature of this 500-year-old practice and its role in the modern world. It will run through the end of the school year. A public reception will be held Friday at the gallery from 4-6 p.m.
Raymond Silverman , a University professor of afroamerican and african studies and art history, and Gilbert Amegatcher, a professor of art and design an Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, collaborated with each other during the winter of 2007 to curate and plan the exhibit. Their students were able to interact with one another and assist in the planning through an online discussion forum.
Featured objects in the exhibition include boxes, pendants, key rings, drawer pulls and clothes hooks from the Museum of Anthropology, the UMMA and Silverman’s own personal collection, which he has acquired over the years.
These objects are made through a process known as lost-wax casting. After a wax model is created out of beeswax, it is dipped in a charcoal and clay mixture. Once this model is heated, the wax vaporizes. And so, what was once there is lost. What replaces the wax is molten brass which results in a casting that becomes an exact replica of the wax model.
“The mold is broken open and invariably every single object that is made from this process is unique because you cannot use the mold more than once,” Silverman said.
The exhibit is cross-disciplinary as it examines these objects under artistic, historical and anthropological perspectives. Not only are we able to view the objects as decorative pieces, we can understand the context in which they were made as well as the lives of people who contributed to their making.
“One of the things I wanted to emphasize in the exhibit is to give personality to the people who make these objects,” Silverman said.
Silverman, who has been traveling to Ghana since the 1970s, has contributed photographs of his encounters with the brass casters of Krofrom and text describing the history of the Asante people of Ghana, who practice the tradition of lost-wax casting. The photographs are complemented by two multimedia installations that document the lost-waxing process, discuss its history, future and the brass casters’ own perception of their work.
Although the lost-wax casting process hasn’t undergone many changes, technology continues to play its role in this evolving industry. With the use of medical syringes that form cleaner wax threads, air circulation fans from automobiles that generate heat in the furnace at a faster rate and impression molds that produce wax models, the number and variety of objects are able to grow. However, even with these subtle innovations, brassworking still remains an intricate hand-made process.
This is one exhibit where the difference between art and craft is difficult to distinguish because of the ambiguous nature of brassworking. Many brass casters deem their work as simply a way of life and cannot imagine their work being displayed in a museum in the same way a tourist may. It is visitors of exhibitions like this one and perhaps scholars and anthropologists who may perceive each piece as containing an artistic element and as something capable of becoming an artifact.
“When the objects are brought out of Africa, the significance changes,” Silverman said.
“Its about context, its about the values and meaning we ascribe to objects.”
Whether these objects are utilitarian or ornamental pieces, the fact that they are enclosed in a glass case makes it possible to render what we’re viewing as art.
As women become more involved in this traditionally male-dominated industry, the future of brassworking is somewhat unclear. One can only wonder how technology may someday alter the lost-wax casting process and whether the value local people assign these objects will ever reach the level of its perceived authenticity and importance abroad.