Recently I wrote on how this year marks 50 years of African independence. The artwork above – The Throne of Weapons, made by the Mozambican artist Cristovao Canhavato (Kester) from decommissioned weapons collected since the end of the civil war in 1992 – adds a further commentary on that period. It was featured today as the 98th object in the BBC History of the World in 100 Objects, also reminding me that in 2005, on a visit to the British Museum, I saw a companion piece by Kester, The Tree of Life.
This is how Neil MacGregor described The Throne of Weapons:
Although it’s entirely made out of chopped-up guns, in its shape the Throne of Weapons looks like a conventional wooden armchair – the sort you might find in a kitchen or at a dinner table. But that’s the only conventional thing about it. The guns that make up this chair in fact track the twentieth-century history of Mozambique. The oldest, forming the back, are two antiquated Portuguese G3 rifles – appropriately so, as Portugal was the country’s colonial master for nearly five hundred years, until independence in 1975. That independence was won by a left-wing resistance movement, FRELIMO, which was supported by the Soviet Union and its allies. Which explains why all the other elements of this chair are dismembered guns manufactured in the Communist bloc. The arms of the chair are made out of Soviet AK47s. The seat is formed from Polish and Czechoslovakian rifles, and one of the front legs is the barrel of a North Korean AKM. This is the Cold War as furniture, the Eastern Bloc in action, fighting for Communism in Africa and across the world.
MacGregor described the disastrous years of economic collapse and bloody conflict that followed independence in Mozambique – the consequence of a bloody civil war that flared when the Rhodesian and South African regimes created and backed an opposition group to fight the new government.
The guns in the Throne are the guns with which this civil war was fought, and it left a million dead, millions of refugees, and 300,000 war orphans in need of care. Peace came only after 15 years when, in 1992, a settlement was brokered, and the country’s leaders began to rebuild their state.
The key challenge in Mozambique was to decommission the hundreds of thousands of surviving guns, and to equip the former soldiers and their families to rebuild their lives. The Throne of Weapons played an inspiring role in this recovery process. It was made as part of a peace project called Transforming Arms into Tools, which is still going today. Weapons once used by combatants on both sides were voluntarily surrendered under amnesty and, in exchange, the people who gave them up received practical tools – hoes, sewing machines, bicycles, roofing materials. The guns themselves were to be turned into works of art.
The Throne was made by the Mozambican artist Kester. He chose to make a chair and call it a throne, which immediately makes a particularly African statement. Chairs, rather than stools, are rare in traditional African societies, reserved usually for tribal heads, princes and kings. They are “thrones” in the truest sense of the word. But this is a throne on which no-one is meant to sit. It’s not for an individual ruler, but it’s intended rather as an expression of the governing spirit of the new Mozambique – peaceful reconciliation.
Since the beginning of the project, more than 600,000 weapons have been relinquished and handed over to artists like Kester, to be disabled and turned into sculpture. The sculptures take many forms, but this piece seems to me to have a very particular pathos, precisely because it has been made in the shape of a chair. When we talk about chairs, we always speak of them as though they were human beings – we say they have arms, legs, backs and feet. So there is something particularly disturbing, I think, about a chair made out of weapons that were designed specifically to maim backs and arms, legs and feet.
The Tree of Life, which I photographed at the British Museum in 2005 (above) was made a year earlier by Kester and three other Mozambican artists: Hilario Nhatugueja, Fiel dos Santos and Adelino Serafim Maté. It is also product of the Transforming Arms into Tools project and it, too, is made from decommissioned weapons. TAE was set up by Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane in 1995 and supported by Christian Aid.
The British Museum guide describes the sculpture as follows:
The tree stands 3.5 metres tall. Its trunk is a filigree of rusted metal rising from four thick roots at the base and sprouting overhead into a canopy of branches. Two-thirds of the way up, a small monkey springs up the trunk, its tail curved, its eyes trained on a bird’s nest on a branch above its head. A mother bird, wings splayed, feeds her chicks in the nest that is partly hidden by leaves. On the opposite side of the tree a butterfly hangs from a branch. All are the same tarnished brown colour. Like the tree, the creatures are made of gun parts: chopped-up AK-47 rifles, pistols and even rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Around the base of the trunk are more creatures – birds with abundant plumage, a lizard, a tortoise and a giant butterfly.
The rough texture of the bark is formed by different sized gun barrels, butts, and magazines welded together to make a cylindrical framework. Here you can make out a trigger and trigger guard, there a complete pistol. At the top of the trunk gun barrels create the beginnings of the stiff, angular branches. Barrels with increasingly narrower bores – often with their sights still in place – have been welded together, end to end, so the branches taper. For the leaves, sections of metal from gun barrels or magazines have been opened out and flattened. Groups of leaves fan out on either side of the gun-barrel branches.
Bishop Dinis Sengulane, founder of Transforming Arms Into Tools, said the sculpture was relevant to UK gun crime. “We would like you to adapt this to your own reality. People involved in the armament industry, even in making toy guns, should realise that guns are instruments for destroying human life.”
The concept of the tree of life has a long pedigree, and has been depicted for millenia in the art, literature and religion of many cultures. It is often seen in ritual paintings, which are created to ensure a good harvest or keep away evil spirits.
In Egyptian mythology Isis and Osiris, the first couple, were said to have emerged from the acacia tree of Saosis, which
the Egyptians considered to be ‘the tree in which life and death are enclosed’. In Jewish folklore, the tree of life was planted by God in the Garden of Eden, its fruit giving everlasting life. For the Vikings, Yggdrasil was the world tree, a great ash tree located at the centre of the Universe, joining the nine worlds of Norse cosmology. It connected the realm of gods with the world of mortals and the land of giants. In many parts of the world, especially in Indian rural areas, trees continue to be venerated and people continue to create art forms depicting the tree of life.
In this example of Kalamkari, the temple art of Andhra Pradesh, the artisan uses a pen-like brush called kalam, giving the technique its name. The tree is considered to be one of the most potent of symbols. Its roots delve into the underworld its trunk links the earth to the heavens – it transcends all three spheres. It symbolizes birth, maturity, death and rebirth embodied in leaf, bud and fruit.
Here, the tree of life is transposed as a vase containing flowers and a variety of leaves. The flowers are those associated with fertility. Generally, a tree of life is flanked by worshippers, birds or animals, which could vary locally. Here the tree is flanked by a couple of peacocks. It is relevant to note that in Indian mythology, peacocks occupy a prominent place. They symbolize immortality, love, courtship, fertility, regal pomp and protection. When the auspicious tree of life and the important motif of a peacock come together, this painting’s worth is doubly elevated.