Symbols of resilience
He is one of the best-known artists from one of the poorest countries in the world: Gonçalo Mabunda from Mozambique makes works of art from old firearms used in the civil war. Both as an artist and an anti-war activist, he works for peace and seeks to add beauty and security to his homeland.
Mozambique is one of four countries that display a Kalashnikov (AK 47) on its flag or coat of arms. It is intended here as a symbol of the struggle for freedom that led to independence from Portugal in 1975. Freedom symbols can be found on numerous flags, even if an assault rifle looks rather martial - but it did not serve as a good omen here. In the years that followed, instead of peace, Mozambique was dominated by a civil war that did not end until the early 1990s and that intensified and consolidated poverty in the country to such an extent that it is still one of the poorest countries in the world today.
After the end of the civil war, Mozambique was to be freed from the omnipresent firearms. The Christian Council of Mozambique organized actions in which war material was collected and rendered harmless. The result was a huge accumulation of weapons for which there was initially no use.
Weapons and Art
At that time, the young artist Gonçalo Mabunda joined the artists' group Núcleo de Arte, of which he also became gallery manager shortly thereafter. The gallery is located in Maputo, the capital and artistic center of Mozambique. Mabunda learned about the Christian Council of Mozambique's campaign and their latest idea, the Arms into Art project. The weapons were to be made available to artists as material. Gonçalo Mabunda decided to join this idea.
When he stepped outside the artists' group's house some time later, he caught sight of the huge mountain of firearms that the Núcleo de Arte artists were to use. Still, for Mabunda, who had grown up in the Civil War, it was an eerie sight. How could there be so many expensive guns in this poor country? More than seven million have been collected so far, and more are still being added every day.
Beginning of a Mission
For Mabunda, who was born in 1975 and had worked with metal before, the weapons were a found material for his art. He made his first sculpture from them - a motorcyclist on a bike - and in the process acquired his own unique technique for working with the unfamiliar material. In the course of this, Mabunda found his artistic path: he creates thrones and masks, which are composed of the functionless weapons and unused ammunition.
The thrones represent power, which in African countries is often taken and secured by force of arms, a circumstance Mabunda's works seek to mock. At the same time, ammunition is taken out of circulation through its processing into works of art and thus can no longer be used for its actual purpose. Mabunda sees himself not only as an artist, but also as an anti-war activist.
Recent auction results of Gonçalo Mabunda
For the artist and activist, the history of his raw material is of central importance. As weapons, only those from Mozambique find their way into his works: when he works with other metal scraps, the traces of their use, such as paint residues, are not removed, but become an element of his work in order to preserve the history of the material, to let it become part of the narrative of the artwork. With this approach, Mabunda gained worldwide attention and his works found their way into exhibitions, such as those at the Centre Pompidou and the Vatican Museums. In 2015, he was the first artist from Mozambique to exhibit at the Venice Biennale.
Publicly presented works of art have a special relevance for Mabunda, because in this way he can bring his works to people who otherwise have no connection to art. He sees his works not only as works of art, but also as symbols of the resilience of people hungry for peace, which must be communicated beyond the art market.
Ever since the world's third-largest deposit of liquefied natural gas was discovered in Mozambique, the country has been threatened with renewed war. It became a reality at the latest with the IS attacks on the city of Palma near the natural gas fields in early 2021. Hundreds of thousands fled the region, lacking food and medical supplies. The warfare continues, people are dying of malnutrition - events that deeply concern Mabunda and will find their way into his future work.
In addition to his own artistic endeavors, Mabunda has launched the University of the Street project, which seeks to introduce street children to the world of art - strengthening their eye for creativity, recycling trash lying around as material for their own work, and hopefully opening up a sense of a possible life outside of crime. Working with street children is a challenging task for Mabunda, one that has become even more difficult in the last two years of the pandemic. But he is convinced that fundamental changes take time and can only succeed if people persevere in advocating for them, never stopping to work for the right cause.
Thus, in Mozambique, the discussion about the removal of the Kalashnikov from the national flag, which not only in Mabunda's opinion is out of date as a symbol, is also gaining increasing attention. And even if this is "only" about a symbol, the discussion may already reflect a hopeful development in the public consciousness, while the reality of life is still struggling with setbacks.
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