Reuse of Metals

Blacksmiths were well known for their ability to re-forge outworn tools into 'new' items: an old hoe blade might be made into an axe-head; when that was worn out it might become an arrowhead or part of a musical instrument.

Old lorry springs make good raw material for cutlass blades; umbrella spokes have often been transformed into tongues for thumb-pianos or mbiras (see also the example in Coote, Transformations, fig 60). The cutlass blade made in England has been pressed back into service as a Zulu spearhead. These are not recent activities; the spear was made before 1868, the mbira before 1937.

A wide variety of metals and metal alloys have been reformed by blacksmiths, whitesmiths (workers in tin, aluminium and other white metals) and metal casters, using combinations of metal as they come to hand. This is what the white metal figures from Cameroon have been made from; although the constituents of the metal have been analysed, their origins are impossible to confirm.

A range of items have been fashioned from industrial waste, the original form of which has been retained, such as bottle tops, fashioned into a xylophone player (see also the bottletop basket in Coote, Transformations, fig 10), lamps and other containers made from milk cans. Toys made of re-used metal plate have been a roadside industry for many years. They are increasingly popular, so much so that newly-made metal sheets destined for use, say, as sardine cans are now sold direct to the toy makers.

In most of these examples, the form of the original object is still discernable; but metals are especially appropriate for complete transformation, through re-casting or re-forging. The great majority of surviving non-ferrous African artworks are likely to be re-castings of earlier figures or other objects, often imported for different purposes, for instance brass basins, or manillas, used as currency. Objects of precious metals are the most likely to be re-cast, or else melted down for their monetary value; in 1938 a letter from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) reports that “daily the most beautiful specimens of gold workmanship are smashed up and are sent back to the banks in England” (Lindblom, 1939).