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Legacy of Firearms

An elephant sculpted from barrels of an AK-47.  A peacock designed with parts from confiscated Glocks.  A skeleton man with rifle arms and a grenade head.  This is the kind of irony-oozing art coming out of Cambodia and other gun-saturated parts of the world these days.

In the back of a dim warehouse in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh, a group of young local artists make use of workbenches, welding torches, and decommissioned guns in order to create original works of art that make a bold statement.  Triggers, barrels, butts – these out-of-the-box thinkers don’t waste anything.  As part of the Peace Art Project, they were selected from the Royal University of Fine Art to learn metalworking.  Little did they know they would be creating artistic masterpieces from Uzis and other deadly weapons.  “All of my life, I have feared guns because of what they represent and what they have historically done to this country,” said Chanthou Botum, a Cambodian student in her late teens.  “Now that I have held a gun, disassembled it, and turned it into something that is not only safe, but also beautiful, I feel empowered.”  The project has brought hope to many students who grew up in the shadow of Cambodia’s civil war – a bloody 5 year conflict of savage fighting that resulted in massive casualties.  The war also created a legacy of firearms and mines in the country, numbering in the tens-of-millions.

In fact, the widespread proliferation of firearms has sparked Cambodian authorities into action, creating a campaign to encourage citizens to turn in their guns.

Flames of Peace

A stone’s throw from an ancient Buddhist temple, hundreds of villagers gather to watch a documentary that tells the real-life stories of everyday conflicts that have escalated and resulted in bloodshed because of the availability of guns.

“The stories are frightening,” says Sovann Lombak, a local rice farmer.  “They hit very close to home.  I know men in my own village who have guns and tempers, and who would not surprise me if they ended up shooting someone.  I don’t like to say these things, but it is a fact.”  Another woman says she worries about the amount of drinking that goes on in her village and how a gun in a drunk person’s hand could have grave consequences.

As a result of a campaign started several years ago, hundreds of thousands of guns are voluntarily being handed in to authorities.  Schools like the Royal University have their pick of the litter of decommissioned weapons, but they can only create so many works of beauty.  To manage the destruction of the rest of the weapons, special symbolic ceremonies known as “Flames of Peace” are held in order to heat the guns and render them useless as a tool of violence.   The ceremonies, much like the creation of gun art, can be an emotionally draining process that drives people to tears.

In other parts of the world where guns have a strong and unregulated presence, artists and those who work to get weapons out of circulation experience a similar catharsis.

Machine Guns of Mozambique

Mozambican artists have also found that utilizing guns to create art has a poignancy and resonance that transcends the country’s violent history.

Kito Bakari, an artist in the capitol city of Maputo, has created over 40 novel and eloquent sculptures from decommissioned weapons. Bakari is involved in a project that sets out to transform arms into something usable and meaningful. The project has collected more than 200,000 guns, grenades, and rocket launchers. As a reward, people who hand in weapons are given farm tools and other equipment to better their lives; often the farm tools are made from weapon parts.

Bakari credits the project with opening people’s eyes to the realities of violence and destruction, not to mention the benefits of thinking outside of the box.  Quietly putting the final touches on a new abstract rhino sculpture, Bakari finally says,  “I look at this sculpture made of guns – each individual gun is probably responsible for taking a life.  Or more likely, hundreds or thousands of lives.  It’s heartbreaking, but I also take comfort in knowing any gun I use in my art will never take a life again.”  When asked how long he’ll continue making sculptures out of guns, Bakari says, “If I say I will wait until I run out of guns, I will end up making them forever.  So I guess I will wait until I run out of guns.”

In the U.S., which is also in no danger of a gun shortage, the gun-as-sculpture movement has been steadily growing.

Guns Into Art

San Francisco based Guns into Art was born out of Executive Director John Rickers’ experiences as a youth on the dangerous streets of Los Angeles.  Having lost several friends to gun-related violence, he felt a compelling need to get guns off the street and make a poignant statement in the process.

Through community education and outreach programs, Rickers has worked to shift the perception of guns from problem-solving tools to instruments of destruction.  Additionally, the organization hosts public events known as “gun bakes” where assault weapons are melted down by professional blacksmiths and turned into art by talented artists who believe in the organization’s overall message.  Furthermore, utilitarian items like bike racks, park benches and candleholders are created from the melted metal.  Of course, the organization has its detractors who argue that their message is in contradiction to the rights of gun owners, but with such a hot button issue, it’s hardly a surprise that there is no middle ground to stand on.

Guns into Art is also committed to obtaining and confiscating guns in war-torn regions all over the world.

Making a Statement

Perhaps it is Bakari who summed up the gun-as-sculpture movement best when he said, “There is real power and there is perceived power; the best way to show a man that his gun only gives him perceived power is to take it from him and render it useless.  At first he’ll think his manhood is being stolen, but if he has a brain in his head, he’ll eventually come to realize you’re actually giving him his manhood back.”