IN HIS EL­E­MENT

With fire, earth, wa­ter and air, the black­smith of Prince Al­bert puts the artisan back into that over-used ad­jec­tive, ar­ti­sanal

Sunday Times - - Artisan -

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.”

L

Kashief Boo­ley of Prince Al­bert comes com­plete with an anvil, a forge and a pas­sion for fire – just like in the old sto­ry­books.

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