May 8, 2014
The AK-47 Tree Of Life
Imagine for a moment that the land you live in has been ravaged by civil war for 16 years. Blood money has brought millions of guns and other weapons into your land and your life. When at last the killing is over and some semblance of peace has returned, the weapons remain. Hidden or buried, they are a constant reminder of the bloodshed and a danger to all, including your children. You do not have the means to destroy them in great number, to melt them down and forge them into something new. What do you do?
This was the reality that Mozambique faced in 1992. After gaining independence from Portugal in 1974, the country soon fell into chaotic struggle. Civil war raged between 1977 and 1992. At least a million died. Millions more fled in terror. With peace came new dangers, including the enormous numbers of abandoned weapons. Such was the impact of war on the country, that to this day, Mozambique’s national flag uniquely contains an image of an AK-47. Then, in 1995, Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane decided to tackle the problem. “Sleeping with a gun in your bedroom is like sleeping with a snake,” he said. “One day it will turn round and bite you.” The Bishop set up the “Transforming Arms into Tools” program. Supported by the charity Christian Aid, he began persuading people to hand in the guns, grenades, and bullets. In exchange, they received a new type of weapon – weapons in the war of survival and the fight for better lives. They traded in huge volumes of arms for things like plows, bicycles, and even sewing machines. In at least one case, a whole village collected so many weapons, they got a tractor in return.
This “turning swords into plowshares” idea was in itself beautiful enough. Then something even more extraordinary began to happen. Artists began to turn the decommissioned weaponry into sculptures. The most amazing manifestation of this is the Tree of Life. It stands almost 12 feet tall. Its color is that of rusty metal. From four strong roots, an elaborate trunk twists its way upwards to a filigree canopy of branches and leaves. The main branches are forged from gun barrels cleverly welded together in decreasing sizes to give a realistic tapering appearance. Every single component of this bizarre growth is taken from recovered weapons, including many AK-47 assault rifles, as well as pistols, grenades, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. If steel and iron could come alive and grow, this is what it would look like. It is a wonderful metaphor that seems to say that out of death and destruction can come forth life and beauty.
The Tree of Life now stands in the Africa room of the British Museum in London. I have seen it many times, but it never fails to move me. Every time I see it, I discover something new. There are intricate animals “living” in the tree – a monkey climbs the trunk trying to reach a bird’s nest. In the nest itself, a bird is feeding its chicks. A butterfly hangs from a branch. At the base of the tree are other creatures – a large bird with open wings, a lizard, and more.
In the same room are other pieces of “weapon art” by the same artists. The pick of these is the “Throne of Weapons.” At first glance you don’t realize that this too is made of abandoned weapons. Like the Tree of Life, it is a potent symbol, speaking of the ultimate folly of the warlord and the false glory of his ceremonial throne. These are both tremendous works of art and testaments to the power of survival and belief.
Image Credit: Christian Aid / David Rose