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Through The Fire- Burkina Brass

Swahili Modern Blog and News

Through the fire

Burkinabe cast metal sculptures draw eyes to their elegantly transcendent posturing. From mothers with babes to robust beauties and slender maidens, Burkinabe sculpture de femme reveres the diversity of womanhood through intricacies wrought in a rudimentary yet time-honored process.

The lost wax way

Our partners in Burkina Faso do their daily work under a breezy metal canopy among piles of strangely shaped dried clay. The controlled chaos you expect from an art studio suffuses the scene, and woodsmoke wafts through where figures resembling small Barbie dolls cover tabletops. In this world unto itself, the small team divvies up tasks and transforms a relatively basic supply list into prized art using the timeworn yet effective lost wax metal casting method.

Wax on

The little wax dolls across the tabletops have a distinctive purpose. Handmade African BasketsServing as models of the finished piece, each is molded from softened wax. This feels like the fun part, as it's rather familiar to making Play-Doh creations as children.

When we receive shipments from Burkina, I love looking at each sculpture and imagining how the piece came together as it was shaped in wax. The amount of time invested in small details always comes through, and rush jobs are equally evident. This artistic style focuses mainly on a smoothly contoured figure in repose, which can be replicated quite closely. To give each piece individuality, roughly-textured frocks wrap each figure with folds and flares in slightly different array--guaranteeing that each piece is completely one-of-a-kind.

Into the chrysalis

With the wax figure finished to its creator's specification and design, another team member begins surrounding the figure in wet clay. Building up slowly to ensure that the clay and wax wed without bubbles and inclusions between them, the artist knows the thickness to achieve before shaping an exit port and setting the clay and wax cocoons aside to dry.

Wax off

Once the clay has dried, the entire shape goes into a fire. Firing hardens the clay mold and melts the wax, which drains through the exit port, leaving a void in the shape of the original figure. The "lost wax" has now served its purpose.

Filling the void

The team purchases bulk brass and other metals to use in their foundry. The brass is heated until it liquidates, then poured very carefully from a crucible into the mold's port. Again, the artisans know well how fast to pour in order to eliminate bubbles and fill every last bit of the mold. Within the clay mold, the brass fills and conforms to the shape of the original wax figure. When the molten metal reaches the fill point on the mold, the clay and metal cocoon finds a quiet place to rest while the brass inside fully hardens.

The moment of truth

Across the lot, another team member cuts away the clay mold to reveal a shiny brass figure. If all has gone well, every little detail wrought in wax will have transferred to the metal sculpture. The artists use rasps to knock away any undesired flashing and to smooth small imperfections. If too many problems are present, the sculpture fails the quality check and the brass returns to the crucible to be used for a future piece of art.

The finishing touch.

To give the brass a bronze patina and add color to each sculpture's frock, the artists use a variety of chemicals. Unique reactions between the chemicals and brass add another level of individuality, as no single application can perfectly match another. Subtle contrast adds dimension, and giving each lady a gold necklace requires little more than leaving the brass shining through, untouched.

Burkina's beauty

Sculptures of figures of all shapes and sizes emerge from the foundry, from tiny dancing ladies to towering statues. In true Burkinabe spirit, an appreciation for distinctiveness shines through each creation. While an August terrorist attack in Burkina's capital city, Ougadougou, may make the country seem like a dangerous place to visit, our agent Abraham affirms our shock to again hear of this lovely city and its kind people falling to harm:

We also are shocked and we do not understand what is happening. These people do not come from here. We are paying the price of our tolerance and tranquility that terrorists do not want to see. I have no relatives directly affected but I am bruised to know that so many lives have been taken away by these enlightened full of hate. Thank you so much for your support. We really appreciate this thought and it will make us stand up and never give up.

A lasting piece

As our collection of Burkina Bronzes grows, so does our admiration for the integrity of our artisan partners. While no relationship is without its challenges, we continue to see the graciousness and openness of Burkina's people portrayed in their art. We hope that each sculpture spotted on a store shelf or displayed in a home calls to mind the beautiful, abundant and tolerant Africa we love. Your embrace of these singular works of art inspires us here in Oregon and in Ougadougou. Thank you for giving these Burkinabe beauties homes!

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