A throne - made from the back-end of a bath tub with armrests made from machine gun magazines balanced atop mortar bomb legs - stands against the wall. Above it hang masks, but they’re not the kind you will find for sale at Feima souvenir market in Mozambique’s capital city. They are neither carved from mahogany nor chiselled from stone and don’t have the recognisable characteristics of typical African masks.
Instead, they’re arranged from various decommissioned weapons, tools and everyday objects. One has a machete smile, another has bullet teeth, this one has a spade for a nose, that one an electrocuted wire brush for hair. The masks stare at me and demand answers to difficult questions. “My masks represent seeing the truth behind the mask,” says Mozambican sculptor Gonçalo Mabunda.
I’m navigating through his private workshop, in the backyard of his apartment along a Saturday afternoon street in Maputo, before our interview. Though intimate, it’s an animated representation of his stream of consciousness, with his thoughts and ideas strewn across the ground in physical form.
Mabunda first remembers holding an AK47 as a child when his uncle Vasco, a soldier for the government, brought one to his house.
“I remember how much heavier it was than I expected. This was my first experience of metal’s power, force and potential,” he says.
Though Mabunda first began his career as a painter, it was South African sculptor Andries Botha, under whose guidance he trained in Durban, who made him fall in love with metal as a medium.
“It’s powerful, heavy and requires huge emotional investment,” he says.
He was one of 10 artists who were initially part of the "Transforming Guns into Hoes" programme in 1992, when the 15-year-long civil war between Frelimo and Renamo forces - that resulted in a million deaths and saw five million displaced - ended.
The Christian Council of Mozambique (CCM) offered up tools for life - ploughing instruments, seeds and grains, bicycles, and sewing machines - in exchange for tools of war.
The transformation project was founded on words from the book of Micah in the Old Testament: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
A decade into the project, Anglican Bishop Dinis Sengulane, general secretary of the CCM, was quoted as saying: “The most memorable group came from Subutu, with 500 guns they had discovered hidden in a dump. We gave this group a tractor in appreciation of their effort.”
In that time, more than 800 000 weapons were dismantled and given to Mabunda and fellow artists to use as art material to deconstruct the psychological cost of war.
“Today, when I work with guns, I transform something made for killing into something of peace and reflection.”
And though the southern African country’s recent history has been painful, especially with the resurgence in late 2013 after 20 years of peace, he acknowledges that “it’s also important not to change history simply because it’s truth. It’s better to show the truth and expose it, so people can appreciate peace more.” He defines his body of work in three words: dialogue, repose and honesty.
Mabunda’s works narrate the country’s past and simultaneously reflects on post-conflict Mozambique. These conversations have again come to the fore since 2013. It’s a cathartic comment on national memory and reconciliation.
After exhibiting in London, Paris, Venice, New York, Tokyo and South Africa, to name a handful, he has gained international popularity to the point where galleries and collectors insist on authenticity certificates for his work to avoid the many copies that are popping up.
But the 42-year-old sculptor is not resting on his laurels. He is currently working on his next major project. He bought land in Catembe, Maputo, and is constructing an atelier and gallery “where I can host and teach young artists from all over the world to develop their talent, as well as to expose them to the public.” And to help them create dialogue about important issues like when one of his thrones was detained at the customs office in the US.
He wants young artists to know: “Working within the arts is very hard, but it’s possible. Be organised, fight, work hard, deliver and most importantly believe. Don't be discouraged by years of no sales, keep focused and keep learning.”
All we can hope for is that he soon runs low on his supply of decommissioned weapons.