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Mozambique: Tree of Life

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Apr 8, 2005 (050408)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The Tree of Life, a half-tonne sculpture made entirely of weapons reclaimed after Mozambique's long post-independence war, is among the major features in a year-long series of exhibits and events in the UK highlighting African culture and art. A project called Transforming Arms into Tools, which has collected more than 600,000 weapons in nine years, gets people to hand in old guns in exchange for goods such as sewing machines, building materials and tools. These weapons are then chopped up and used to build works of art.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin includes a press release from Christian Aid about the exhibit and an interview with one of the artists. Additional articles, as well as a photo gallery and a collection of video clips related to the exhibit, are available at

The Tree of Life photo gallery can be accessed directly at

A photo of the sculpture "Throne of Weapons," which is being toured by the British Museum, is available at

Additional events and exhibits in the BBC Africa05 series are available at

An earlier selection of sculptures from the Transforming Arms into Tools program, with additional background on more of the artists, in Portuguese, Danish, and Dutch as well as English, is available at

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Tree of guns takes root at the British Museum


Christian Aid

A half-tonne sculpture made out of chopped up guns and other decommissioned weapons will be unveiled at the British Museum on 2 February 2005. The 'Tree of Life' was commissioned by The British Museum and overseas development charity Christian Aid to coincide with the start of the Africa 2005 season of cultural events in London.

Mozambican artists spent three months creating the three-metre-high sculpture, made entirely out of weapons such as AK-47s, pistols and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They see it as a way of using their art to promote peace.

The weapons are collected by an innovative project, Transforming Arms into Tools, which exchanges guns for equipment such as sewing machines, bicycles, and building materials. One village received a tractor for collecting 500 weapons.

There are still millions of arms hidden throughout Mozambique - a legacy of the 16-year-long civil war that ended in 1992.

In the last nine years the project, which employs some former child soldiers, has collected and dismantled more than 600,000 weapons.

Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane is the founder of Transforming Arms into Tools, which is supported by Christian Aid.

He said: 'I tell people that sleeping with a gun in your bedroom is like sleeping with a snake - one day it will turn round and bite you.'

Dr Daleep Mukarji, director of Christian Aid, said: 'It's amazing to see how Mozambican artists build a culture of peace through creating fascinating sculptures from dismantled killing machines. This project encourages people to exchange tools of death with tools for living.'

The Transforming Arms into Tools project has been so successful in collecting guns from former soldiers that other African governments are considering implementing similar schemes.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said: 'The Tree of Life is an extraordinary, thought-provoking sculpture which is a potent emblem of the complexities linking Africa to the rest of the world. The Museum is delighted to have worked with Christian Aid on this project.'

Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world with more than three quarters of the population living on less than $2 a day.

Such extreme poverty can fuel crime. As long as the guns are still usable there is a danger that they could end up in the wrong hands and cause even more death and suffering.

The weapons exchanges have meant that many Mozambicans have been able to make a living thanks to their new tools.

Filipe Tauzene, a former child soldier, said: 'The life I have now is much better as before I didn't have the bicycle to move and go to town and sell things in my shop. I didn't have iron sheets to cover my house. I have been given very useful things, which means I can get on with my life.'

For further information please contact Kati Dshedshorov on 020 7523 2452, or Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522,

Notes to editors:

  1. The Christian Council of Mozambique, a partner organisation of Christian Aid, has been running the Transforming Arms into Tools project since 1995. Graca Machel, wife of Nelson Mandela and former First Lady of Mozambique, is the project's patron.
  2. Christian Aid and the British Museum commissioned Mozambican artists from Nucleo de Arte Kester, Fiel dos Santos, Hilario Nhatugueja, and Adelino Mathe to create the Tree of Life, a three metre sculpture weighing half a tonne made entirely out of AK47-s 'Kalashnikov', Walther 42-s, German MP40-s and British 4.85mm-s.
  3. The Africa 2005 Season involves some of the major London galleries, the Arts Council, the British Museum, the Southbank Centre, Christian Aid and other UK institutions which have joined forces to celebrate African art and the cultural diversity of the continent from February until October 2005.
  4. Christian Aid is an international development charity and works in more than 50 countries with over 600 partner organisations helping some of the poorest communities irrespective of religion, race and background.

Interview with Fiel dos Santos

by Matt Cunningham, published 9 February, 2005

Fiel dos Santos, 32, is a member of Nucleo de Arte, an artists collective in Mozambique's capital, Maputo.

After Mozambique's 16-year civil war ended in 1992, the Christian Council of Mozambique set up a weapons exchange - a guns-for-tools deal. The surrendered arms were then broken up and given to Nucleo de Arte.

Fiel and three fellow artists were recently commissioned by Christian Aid and the British Museum to create a centrepiece work for the Africa 05 season. The result was the remarkable Tree of Life.

Here, Fiel talks about guns, politics and the art of not selling out.

Q: You grew up against a backdrop of bloody civil war in your home country. How has this experience coloured your work?

A: Where I live, 14km outside of Maputo, it wasn't in the centre of the fighting. But when I was 15 my brother was captured near our home by the Renamo [the anti-government resistance movement] and kept for six years. So of course the war affected me and my work.

'My objective is to communicate how it is possible to create a civilisation for peace, and that it is possible to live in a world without war'

My art is very personal. I try to express feelings I have had and talk about things that have happened. So at first it was very difficult to work with the weapons because it brought back a lot of memories. It was hard to ignore that these things had been used to kill.

Q: What is it that you are trying to say with your Transforming Arms into Tools pieces, and are you happy that your message comes across clearly?

A: My objective is to communicate how it is possible to create a civilisation for peace, and that it is possible to live in a world without war.

The material I have worked with here speaks for itself I try to make it say something different. So I have turned them into birds, flowers and animals. Step by step, I try to introduce themes that make people think about peace and not about war.

I have been having a very positive response from people, but I am never 100% satisfied, because there's always a time when there is a big gap between what I say and what some people hear. You keep persisting, though.

Q: Do you see your work as political?

A: In a way yes, but it depends on how you mean political.. Politicians in Mozambique have in the past taken works of art or songs or such that have a strong political thread and used them for their own means.

You must remember we have only had democracy for 12 years in Mozambique. We can remember when everything was dictated by politicians and politics. Now people have more space to create and be what they are. For example, before it was very difficult for me to be a Rastafarian, but now everyone accepts me for what I am. So, of course, the Tree of Life is political you can't talk about guns without talking about politics. But I prefer to think of it as providing civic and political education in an indirect way.

Q: You say 'indirect'. Is it important to you that your art engages people 'on a level' instead of talking down, or dictating to your audience.

A; The work I do, I get from society. I always try to work with people, working with others' creativity, artists and non-artists. I try to understand people, understand what they like to see. But I also try to use my art to speak back to them. It is like a conversation.

It can be really powerful. I have even had people thanking me for showing them different coordinates, helping them think about things in a different way.

Two years ago I was working with street children in Maputo. The results were really rewarding. The idea was to show these children that they can create something and put it on show. I wanted them to feel that they have something to say. It gives them a new image of themselves.

Q: One of Africa 05's principal aims is to give British art lovers an idea of where African art is today. How do you see the current state of art in Africa?

A: Africa is a breeding place for many different kinds of art, and we have very good artists. However, the artist lives in the moment, and this means many African artists get lost in trying to sell their work to the west. It is an illness. I think art should be innovative, not only for consumption.

Q: So do you think some African artists continue to make so called 'tribal art' purely because it meets the expectations and demands of western art buyers?

A: Yes, they do. I know a lot of people who work this way. So much African art is just made to be sold.

I don't appreciate this, and I don't get involved in it. Art and creativity should bring a spiritual feeling of well-being which is not in straight relation with consumption.

Art should become someone's livelihood. It should sit alongside other aspects of your life. Its benefits aren't just to do with making money.

Q: What can Africa 05 change?

A: I believe it will help change people's preconceptions about Africa and its art here in Britain. But it will also help change African artists and the way they look at their art.

I hope that artists will start to consider their art in the long run. For example, this project we started working on it in 2003. Everything takes time. Hopefully more artists will look for international projects to look for other ways to create without just aiming for sales.

So I think Africa 05 will help work as an incentive for more artists to give more cultural or social meaning to their art.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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