When I went to Ghana, my view of the world changed. Even the stars seemed to tilt because I was in a different spot on the globe, navigating with a new compass. I imagined making a necklace for the Queen of Heaven, Cassiopeia, an African queen who is supposed to have been turned into a constellation because her beauty surpassed the gods and goddesses.
I came to a small village to learn traditional metal casting, a thousand-year-old process invented in West Africa. I wanted to know its present-day practice firsthand. The work of the metal casters was extraordinary, and they helped me fit seamlessly into their workshop. Joseph Agyemang became my mentor and I worked side by side with his expert assistants, Paul Amponsah and Kofi Amponsem. The two of them made the traditional beads that hang from Cassiopeia; they are its co-creators. I designed the installation and the armature from which it hangs. The armature is based on the five stars of the constellation with 12-foot strands hung from one point to the next. The piece is a total of 120 beads and the armature15 feet long.
The bronze and brass beads from West Africa are individual sculptures. Strung together, they are brilliant stars, as yellow as brass, rosy as copper, or golden as bronze. Every bead is a pattern passed down generation to generation by the village craftsmen. I have learned to make the beads but am not nearly as fast as casters who have been doing the work since they were eight year-old apprentices. We model each bead by hand, one at a time, using thin threads of beeswax. We then cover them with a fine layer of charcoal to preserve the intricate wax patterns. We encapsulate them in molds of charcoal and clay with a crucible of scrap metal attached and heat them to two thousand degrees in an open-air furnace. We pull them out of the furnace while they are glowing bright orange and flip them so that the molten metal flows into the bead-shaped molds. After we scrub them with a mildly acidic solution of water and lemons, they gleam in the sun.
For over a decade I have gone to Ghana to work with the village metal casters and have collaborated with them on projects in the US. I return the profits to the village to pay for schooling some children of the metal casters. Last year Paul Amponsah came to work in the US. We have collaborated on designs for jewelry well as larger projects for public spaces. Experts have called the beads the “highest quality currently made.” Together the village craftsmen have come full circle, educating children from their families who we hope will grow up to continue the tradition of West African metal casting.