IN HIS ELEMENT
With fire, earth, water and air, the blacksmith of Prince Albert puts the artisan back into that over-used adjective, artisanal
Kashief Booley is the blacksmith of Prince Albert. Once upon a time, that would have been utterly unremarkable. Nearly every village in the world had one. The blacksmith was the man with the strong arm, wielding hammer and tongs at the hot forge, creating the cutting-edge tools of civilisation. An instinctive metallurgist, he would generally be among the best educated in his neighbourhood, meaning he’d sometimes also fill the roles of judge, undertaker, dentist and doctor. The glowing coals from his forge were even used by bakers to make the daily bread. As the centuries passed, the blacksmith went the way of the wheelwright, swallowed up by modern times. However, the forge is staging an artisanal comeback. Booley never expected to become a blacksmith or to live in the Karoo. He’s a Capetonian, born and raised in one of the Bo-Kaap’s original old houses and working in oceanographic research. However, his life turned around in 2002 when he decided to follow his first passion: metalwork.
“After visiting a blacksmith friend and seeing the magic of the forge, I was hooked. I was exposed to the glow and the reek of it all — gas, anthracite and hot metal, the rhythm of hammer and anvil, the hiss of the tempering water, but most of all the mysticism that comes with the craft. “I was fascinated. Fire speaks to you. It’s a powerful element.”
Booley learnt as much as he could about working with metal, suffering burns and bumps, figuring out design in three dimensions. He also picked up the knack of timing his breathing with his hammer strikes — 10 hard whacks, then a lighter “ting” on the anvil as he exhaled and inhaled.
“Soon I was very busy and needed more hands and bigger premises. It was then that I started Striking Metal with my wife Sophia, and brother Mustapha. We built our first forge from an old brake drum and it just grew from there.”
He discovered a passion for design, and was deeply moved by the spirituality of the whole process.
“When I light up the forge, I really feel as if I am entering a different realm, working with nature and my own creativity. It is an ancient craft that brings together all four elements of earth, fire, water and air.”
In 2007 his life changed again. Bogged down by the city, Booley took a long road trip to clear his head. From Cape Town he headed east to Oudtshoorn, and then looped left towards the stately little village of Prince Albert via the Swartberg Pass.
He stopped at the top of the pass. “I sat up there, thinking, ‘Where to from here?’ I can’t explain why, but these mountains and the open Karoo cleared my head.”
In 2010 the whole Booley family moved to Prince
Albert; children, dogs, cats, budgies and all.
“Anyway, a city is no place to raise children. Here one finds a spirit of community and we can live more sustainably.”
It wasn’t all idyllic though. “The Karoo is not for everyone. The first year was very tough. We’d sold up in Cape Town and we had nothing here. But life is a journey, and this is a good life.”
Eight years later, he and his family are still happy in this town that lies in the lap of the Swartberg Mountains.
Like many Karoo men, his appearance changes with the seasons. As winter approaches, he lets his hair and beard grow out. By June it’s his daily pleasure to fire up the glowing forge on icy mornings. Lighting up is less of a pleasure in mid-summer, when hot winds howl over Prince Albert. Then he shaves off hair and beard and ties a bandanna around his head to stop sweat burning his eyes.
Blacksmithing is on the comeback trail because people want or need something original, unique, hand-wrought and durable. Metalwork is a pragmatic art that has regained romanticism and appeal again. As a result Booley is getting busier and busier.
It is interesting to see how blacksmithing has changed over the centuries. Modern-day smiths have several advantages over their predecessors. One is that they can be more mobile, with portable forges.
Also, the blacksmith of old would have envied Booley his mechanical hammer, a great big beast working with enormous force and a rapid rhythm faster than a dragon’s heartbeat. He saves his strong right arm for the finer bits, whacking the malleable hot metal with precision.
He makes benches, tables, hinges, burglar bars, chandeliers, chairs, gates, grates, wine racks, doors, bedsteads, lanterns, handles and head-boards.
More than half of his business comes from Cape Town, and he’s starting to receive commissions from clients abroad.
Booley has a stimulating life with people he loves, in a beautiful place where he is constantly challenged. There is little to beat that, but he is not blind to the downsides.
“The Karoo is magical, but not perfect. We need to define the roles we play. If we want to exist in a small-town community, we must become aware, get involved, we must do something to make it better.
“We need strong teachers with vision. I now give blacksmith classes and demonstrations to educate and inspire people about this amazing craft.”
What does he miss about Cape Town?
“I miss being surrounded by an Islamic community, the great coffee shops and the availability of fresh fish,” he says.
“Cape Town still feeds my creativity and it is important to study trends and see what direction art is taking. But I’ve evolved too. When I’m in the city for longer than a week I can’t wait to get back to the Karoo.”
Kashief Booley of Prince Albert comes complete with an anvil, a forge and a passion for fire – just like in the old storybooks.