The Smiths of Djougou
BY Keith Recker | June 4, 2009
Forging crafts from recycled aluminum cans.
Not far from the busy open market of Djougou, down an unmarked lane, through an unmarked door, a family of smiths turns old cans into treasure. They don’t want international publicity. In fact, they don’t even want the neighbors to know exactly what they’re up to. But on a trip to Benin organized by Heartwear’s Karen Petrossian, we visited the tiny workshop where Heartwear’s African spoons are made.
The smiths had been fashioning goods from recycled food and beverage containers before Petrossian met them. But the combination of his Parisian style and their craft know-how has resulted in elegant, polished utensils that are among Heartwear’s strongest sellers. The shapes are simple. The simplest are metal versions of the slices of calabash used in West Africa to scoop puddings and porridges onto plates. Slightly more elaborate are the serving and coffee spoons, whose forms seem to be equal parts Scandinavian and Tuareg.
Each spare, elemental shape is hammered into shape in the way of all traditionally forged metals: heating and cooling, hammer and anvil, strength and delicacy. The kinsmen work roughly in a circle, and keep an eye on each other’s progress. Some are better coaxing the metal into its rough, preliminary shape. Others at hammering it into an even thickness, or trimming and notching handles into their final form. Only one smith is adept at making the curved bowls. All of them, as well as the younger boys in the workshop, take turns polishing the spoons with palm oil and sandpaper.
The finished products were unveiled at Heartwear’s Spring 2008 show and were a great success. The 2009 exhibition may see a new style or two, put into works by Petrossian on this visit. Check with firstname.lastname@example.org for details.