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Gonçalo Mabunda: The Consciousness of Conflict

by Rachel Vancelette for Urban Mindz

An evocative artist who may not be extremely well known, but should be, is Goncalo Mabunda, born in war-torn Mozambique in 1975. After 10 years of bloody conflict, Mozambique’s fight for independence from Portugal’s colonial grip was barely over only to find the country embroiled in an ugly civil war that lasted over 16 years (1975-1992), tearing the nation apart and leaving mountains of defunct, unexploded ordnance and countless weapons strewn and buried everywhere.

Transmuting horrific instruments of war -- and the evil that inevitably accompanies it -- into constructive and symbolic artwork is Mabunda’s genius.

Best known for his ‘thrones’ and masks, the thrones are fashioned partly from the twisted metal of guns, symbolizing the dominance held by those once in control of his country’s fate. Portuguese traders introduced the concept of a chair with a supported back to Africa around the sixteenth century and it soon became used by tribal leaders as a ‘throne’ symbolizing position, tradition and power in many indigenous tribes.

Very familiar with deadly munitions since the age of seven when his uncle handed him an AK-47 to hold, Mabunda has made it his life’s work to create satirical, poignant art exposing the dreadful experiences and absurdity of war. Beautiful Mozambique, with its gorgeous coastal areas and recently discovered natural resources, continues to struggle with the legacy and collective memory of over 26 years of brutal hostilities. In a still fragile political environment, the vast majority of its 30 million people live in dire poverty with fears of renewed conflict daily, due to opposing factions struggling for supremacy and control.

At first glance, Mabunda’s art -- which critics claim is influenced by such artists as Georges Braque, Jean Dubuffet and even Picasso -- seems a bit lighthearted. However, upon closer inspection, one is overwhelmed by the impressive, yet subtle, commentary he imbues into each piece. Using AK-47's, land mines, rocket launchers, soldiers' boots, pistols, helmets, bullets of every caliber and even sections of tanks, Mabunda brilliantly melds and transforms his pieces, turning “swords into plowshares.”

The Christian Council of Mozambique has worked tirelessly to collect over 800,000 weapons so far, some to be destroyed or deactivated, and some distributed to artists like Mabunda for their work.

Mabunda states about turning weapons into art,“The Throne of New Presidents talks about the taking of power through force, often by military leaders… This project was an important step in rehabilitating the psyche of the people of Mozambique. It was also a sign that the war was really over... I do not cover the surface of the sculpture with any medium, because I want to keep the material authentic. These weapons are real objects that have been reassembled.”

Gonçalo Mabunda’s remarkable sculptures evoke both a Western modernistic edge as well as African traditional imagery and essentially deny the weaponry the fierce killing power which was originally intended. His pieces, born of fierce activism and national pride, seek to challenge and destabilize the legacy and authority of violent political leaders.

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