Farewell to arms

Guns used in Mozambique's civil war are put to dramatic use by an African artist, whose work is a powerful example of our ability as humans to overcome violence and conflict. Frances Carey and Chris Spring report

Peace and reconciliation, civil war and violence, human rights and children's rights - how can we in the West address what may seem to be difficult subjects to tackle in school?

This strange piece of furniture is the "Throne of Weapons". Created in Mozambique in 2001, the "throne" has been sent on tour around the country this year by the British Museum, visiting schools, shopping malls and community centres, government departments, cathedrals and a prison, as well as other museums. The "armschair" or throne was made in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, by the artist Cristovao Canhavato (known as Kester), using decommissioned weapons left over from the civil war, which ended in 1992.

Its principal features are Portuguese rifles and the Russian AK47, and there are also sections from other Eastern European and North Korean guns.

The throne comes from the TAE project - Transformacao de Armas em Enxadas or Transforming Arms into Tools - where weapons previously used by combatants on both sides are voluntarily exchanged for agricultural, domestic and construction tools. Project workers and artists cut the weapons into pieces and then weld them together in fascinating sculptures such as birds of peace, chairs and musical instruments - even entire jazz bands. Inspired by the biblical reference in Isaiah (chapter 2, verse 4):

"... and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

The project was established in 1995 (the same year that Mozambique joined the Commonwealth) by Bishop Dinis Sengulane of the Christian Council of Mozambique, in partnership with Christian Aid. Since the beginning of the programme more than 600,000 weapons have been relinquished and handed to artists such as Kester to be disabled and turned into works of art. Some of these artists are former child soldiers; for all of them, the process of constructing the sculptures is at once painful and cathartic. The results, though vivid reminders of 16 years of devastating conflict, are powerful symbols of hope for the future.

TAE's patron, Graca Machel, widow of Samora Machel, the first President of Mozambique, and now the wife of Nelson Mandela, describes the aim of the project as being, "to take away instruments of death from the hands of young people and to give them an opportunity to develop a productive life".

Most ambitious of all the TAE sculptures to date has been the "Tree of Life", commissioned by the British Museum with Christian Aid and displayed in the Great Court of the Museum for much of this year. The throne, however, has a particular significance in Africa where carved stools and chairs are symbols of power and prestige, with an important role to play in peacemaking traditions.

Traditional furniture like this may be seen in the British Museum. Its Africa collections include artefacts ranging from the earliest man-made tools in the world - hand axes nearly two million years old found at Olduvai Gorge, now in Tanzania - to the work of contemporary artists from Africa and the African diaspora.

The work of the TAE artists has been shown all over the world, from the United Nations - during the International Conference on Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons in 2001 - to the Africa Garden at the British Museum, commissioned this year for the BBC's Ground Force. The project has been a global inspiration to those seeking an end to the international arms trade and all forms of gun crime. With works like the "Throne of weapons", TAE speaks of the capacity of the human spirit to overcome violence and conflict, and challenges deep-rooted assumptions about Africa and our own society.

Frances Carey is head of national programmes at the British Museum and Chris Spring is curator for East African Collectiona

* KS2 KS3 Resource for Teachers is published by Bristol's City Museum Art Galleries (available on request) and at www.christianaid.org.ukafrica2005treeoflife

* Guns into Bikes: recycling as a symbol of peace www.christian-aid.org.uklearnschoolslivedifferentlyarchive.htm

and via www.thebritishmuseum.ac.ukcompass

Cristovao Canhavato (Kester)


Kester was born in Zavala, Mozambique. He trained in technical engineering, but had no formal art education until attending the Nucleo de Arte in Maputo in 1998. Apart from making the "Throne of Weapons", he was one of four artists responsible for the "Tree of Life", 2004. Both sculptures are in the British Museum.

* The "Throne of Weapons" will be on show at the CarAf Centre, London NW5, on December 10, and the Livesey Museum, London SE15, from December 17 to February 25. Thereafter, it will be in the Sainsbury African Galleries (Room 25) at the British Museum (admission free), where the "Tree of Life"

is also displayed.

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