In war-scarred countries, sculptors and smiths turn weapons into art and tools
An unusual chair currently tours Great Britain. Look carefully and you’ll see its constituent parts: Portuguese rifles and Russian AK-47s collected after Mozambique’s 16-year civil war ended in 1992. Throne of Weapons, by an artist named Kester, is one of dozens of sculptures made from firearms by members of the Maputo, Mozambique-based collective Núcleo de Arte. Purchased by the British Museum in 2002, the piece lately has gone around to British museums, galleries, schools, and even a prison.
Joshua Bernstein writes in Plenty (April-May 2006) that the Mozambican nonprofit Transforming Arms Into Tools, founded by Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane, has for a decade now collected more than 600,000 weapons by giving tools, building materials, bikes, and sewing machines to Mozambicans who turn in the guns. (The program’s Portuguese name, Transforma de Armas em Enxadas, literally means “transforming arms into hoes.”) Thousands of those weapons have gone to Núcleo de Arte, whose virtual exhibition Arms into Art shows the guns transformed into human figures, birds, a reptile, a horse, and a 12-legged insectoid creature.
Kester’s Throne has been so popular that the British Museum and Christian Aid, the UK- and Ireland-based antipoverty group that sponsored Núcleo de Arte’s 2002 Swords into Ploughshares exhibit, last year co-commissioned a larger work called Tree of Life. The weapons that make its trunk and branches come from Sengulane’s arms-gathering program. The ultimate provider, however, is the international arms industry itself. U.S. weapons makers delivered arms valued at $18.5 billion overseas in 2004, roughly four times what the next leading exporter, Russia, sent.
Given the number of weapons produced, it’s no surprise that the Mozambique arms-to-art conversion project isn’t unique. In Cambodia, where the government has destroyed more than 160,000 small arms since 1998, many in public ceremonial fires, British activist Neil Wilford and sculptor Sasha Constable launched Peace Art Cambodia in 2003. “In the program’s inaugural 18-month class,” Bernstein reports, “several dozen Phnom Penh college students became metalworkers specializing in M-16 and AK-47 rifle art—including a life-size [sic] Bugs Bunny and a functional bicycle.” The resulting exhibition, To Be Determined/At Arms Length, was displayed at the Wat Phnom Exhibition Center in Phnom Penh last year. The Peace Art Cambodia website (www.peaceartprojectcambodia.org) shows works remarkably similar to those made by the Mozambicans, including chairs and animal figures.
Not all arms conversion programs are institutional. In Laos, a Hmong smith named Lee Moua turns scrap metal from American bombs into gardening tools, Karen Coates reports in Orion (Nov.-Dec. 2005). Some of the tools are sent to Hmong Americans who order his knives and hoes from overseas. The ingenious Moua’s anvil itself is a repurposed artillery shell, and his bellows are fashioned from a parachute flare canister.
Almost every village in Xieng Khouang province has its own blacksmith doing similar work, Coates tells Utne: “The local markets sell spoons, knives, soup bowls, and garden tools formed from old bombs, and every town has at least one or two scrap-metal shops. Much of that metal comes from old bombs, bullets, missiles, and even war planes or tanks.” Bomb casings are used throughout the Laos countryside for “fence posts, animal feeding troughs, small bridges, planters, and even cooking pots,” Coates says.
Reclamation of scrap metal can be deadly, however. Coates notes in Orion that the U.S. military dropped 4 billion pounds of bombs on Laos between 1964 and 1973, killing at least 350,000 civilians, and that up to 30 percent of those bombs never detonated. Now they kill and maim every week as farmers plow fields, people tend yards, and children pluck from the ground things they think are toys.
The mortal balance seems everywhere precarious. In Mozambique, Hilario Nhatugueja, one of the creators of Tree of Life, speaks of changing “instruments of death into hope, life, and prosperity.” Phnom Penh artists say that through their work they send a message that the Cambodian people love peace. In Laos, where an organization in charge of clearing mines is one of the country’s biggest employers, gardening is risky business, but still imaginable.