‘The bird that wants to be free’ by Fiel dos Santos. Purchased by the Royal Armouries, Leeds.

‘The bird that wants to be free’ by Fiel dos Santos. Purchased by the Royal Armouries, Leeds.

ARMS INTO ART

Swords into Ploughshares: Transforming Arms into Art, Oxo Tower, London 18 January - 3 February 2002.

A collection of sculptures created by Mozambican artists from dismantled weapons, curated by Julia Fairrie. The sculptures are both works of art and powerful statements of the Mozambican's ability to build peace after years of conflict. The sculptures have a powerful and unique impact on those who see them.

 Photo credit:  Paul Hackett

Photo credit: Paul Hackett

There were an estimated 7 million guns of all shapes and sizes left over from 16 years of civil war. When war ended in 1992 many demobilised soldiers hid their arms, waiting to use them again.

Up to a million Mozambicans died from fighting and famine in a war that ruined the economy and much of the countryside between 1977 and 1992.

 A Christian Council worker cuts up some of the weapons recently handed in by former combatants.

A Christian Council worker cuts up some of the weapons recently handed in by former combatants.

The TAE project – Transformaçaõ de Armas em Enxadas (Transforming Arms into Tools) was initiated in 1995 to tackle the legacy of the arms trade. Weapons previously used by combatants on both sides are voluntarily exchanged for agricultural, domestic and construction tools. The project was established in Maputo by Bishop Dinis Sengulane of the Christian Council of Mozambique, with the support of Christian Aid. With just 12 staff and two old lorries, TAE has collected and destroyed over 100,000 guns, grenades and rocket launchers.

"The project takes the instruments of death from people and gives them an opportunity to develop a productive life," said Graca Machel, former first lady of Mozambique, patron of the project and now wife of Nelson Mandela. "It's a way of contributing to the culture of peace."

 An artist works on a peace sculpture.

An artist works on a peace sculpture.

There has to be an incentive to former combatants to hand over the deadly relics: farm tools, sewing machines and bicycles are just some of the valued items that are being exchanged for machine guns and mortar bombs from hides all over the country.

It has been found that many former combatants are reluctant to hand over their Kalashnikovs to the UN or the government. This project has been organised by a small church-based charity - the Christian Council of Mozambique. They alone seem to be regarded as neutral and trustworthy by the weapon hoarders.

 Kester shows his chairs in the Mozambican capital, Maputo. All photos: (c) Paul Hackett / Christian Aid

Kester shows his chairs in the Mozambican capital, Maputo. All photos: (c) Paul Hackett / Christian Aid

Artists group Núcleo de Arte in Maputo use fragments of the deactivated weapons to create works of art: these go on sale to raise money for more sewing machines and bikes. All the artists involved with TAE, some of whom were child soldiers, have studied at Núcleo de Arte. For them the process of constructing the sculptures is at once painful and cathartic. The results are vivid reminders of 16 years of devastating externally fuelled civil war and powerful symbols of hope for the future.

Artist Humberto Delgado said: "I was transforming weapons - with the knowledge of what they were used for - into something totally different, with a positive significance.

"Making something out of these materials was like opening a flower."

The exhibition demonstrated how artists have made ingenious use of AK47's, bayonets, pistols, ammunition containers and mines. These munitions and man killers have been transformed into human figures, animals, musical instruments and even chairs.

Some of the art works were displayed at a conference on small-arms proliferation at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

The sculptures were sold at auction to museums, private collectors and government departments including: the British Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the Royal Armouries, Leeds, the Commonwealth Institute and the UK Ministry of Defence.