Sat. May 28th, 2022

It is not a throne on which any chief or monarch will feel comfortable to sit. Built in 2001 by Mozambican artist Cristóvão Canhavato, or Kester, from fired rifles used in the Mozambican Civil War (1977-92), the sharp chair sculpture is part of a young nation’s healing process following a conflict in which more than a million people died.

In the home, the chair is a quotidian object in the middle of family life; this is where we eat, relax, communicate, discuss. It indicates a willingness to sit and listen. But in many cultures it can also be a symbol of authority.

Here corrupt power leads to bloodshed and, as the guns that make up the chair originated from outside the country – Portuguese G3 rifles, Soviet AK47s, North Korean AKMs, Polish and Czechoslovak rifles – it reveals the competing interests and ideologies of international states at the time.

In the manner of the stylized human figures sometimes carved on traditional African chairs, two rifle butts with screw-hole eyes and belt-slot mouths make blunt-headed military men for the rear posts of the recycled chair.

The weapons came from “Transforming Arms into Tools”, a peace project backed by Christian Aid, the brainchild of Bishop Dinis Sengulane. Inspired by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to “turn swords into plowshares and [ . . . ] spears in pruning shears ”, he urged Mozambicans to hand over their hidden arsenal in exchange for“ production tools ”- sewing machines, plows, tractors and bicycles. Even children who brought in bullets received pens and exercise books in return.

About 600,000 firearms were surrendered; most were destroyed, others were sent to an artist collective in the capital Maputo for creative reform. There, Kester produced his most celebrated piece, a chair made not for a man, but a people.

In 2002, the British Museum bought “Throne of Weapons” for £ 1,200 and later toured the UK, still appearing regularly as a subject in schools during Black History Month and Art Week. Neil MacGregor, former director of the museum, portrayed it in his email A history of the world in 100 objects, which calls it the “Cold War as furniture” and observes how both a body and a chair share the same vulnerable parts: legs, feet, arms, back.

“Throne of Weapons” is not currently displayed. It “rests” for conservation purposes. Its absence is consistent with the fragility of both the planet and of peace in Mozambique.

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