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Manfred recycles the decommissioned AK-47s, M16s, RPG launchers, pistols, rifles and other deadly arms into art. He turns man’s invention to kill into an ornament sitting on your living room table, holding a candle, your books, popping the cap off your beer. Grotesque and destructive becomes aesthetic and useful.
UN Peacekeepers decommissioned over 18,000 weapons in Liberia. These are the weapons that fueled ruinous back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003. Weapons that were carried by soldiers, farmers, students, traders, and sometimes children. Weapons that forced Liberians into a senseless power struggle against their will. The arbiters of rape, pillage, murder and crimes that pitted neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother. These are the weapons that took the lives of more than 250,000 people.
Zbrzezny views the transformation process as purification by fire: heating the dense steel to high temperatures and hammering new angles and shapes into muzzles, barrels triggers and stocks helps eliminate the weapon’s bloody past. The resulting sculptures often embody nature–animals, flowers, trees– thereby completing the process of transformation from destroyer to creator.
A seahorse with a pistol for a head, a palm tree with small pieces of AK-47 as coconuts. The artist also makes practical pieces such as lamps, candlesticks and the very popular bottle opener made from the gas pressure piston of an AK-47, found in hundreds of bars and kitchens throughout Monrovia.
Zbrzezny’s art and mission owe much to the 15,000 UN Peacekeepers that went into Liberia at the end of 2003. Today, his message of peace resonates with those trying to end conflicts all over the world. In his own words:
“A disarmed weapon is obsolete. I recreate and change its use. An aesthetic appearance and the recognition of the pieces origin at second glance is intentional. It is recycling in a broader sense to show that even an object of suffering can be transformed into something useful. Also it is an ornamental illustration of a transformation in society.”
Manfred Zbrzezny, grew up in frigid northern Germany and learned something about metallurgy from a neighbor who took him in. He the studied architecture in Italy and eventually fell in love with a Liberian woman. He came to Liberia in 2005, two years after the end of the rebel siege of Monrovia that brought fragile peace to the West African nation. He was rattled by what he saw but also saw potential for a future.
In 2007, he returned and was commissioned by a riverside restaurant owner to apply his skills to transform parts of old weapons into a marine-themed banister. The project was such a success that he began making other pieces for the restaurant with parts from rocket-propelled grenade launchers and sub-machinegun barrels – then still commonplace in Monrovia.
“It was strange from the beginning to work with weapons or instruments of destruction and suffering. The first two years I was working, the weapons had a real emotional impact on me. It was inevitable to imagine what these weapons once upon a time were used for. But now I try not to get lost in these thoughts and focus more on the art and its potential for bringing healing to the people of Liberia from its brutal past!”
He began collecting the many weapon parts from a charity involved in Liberia’s disarmament process and made a business out of transforming instruments of war into candle stands, book ends, bells and bottle openers.
“It was all by chance that I came to work with weapons. Now I employ Liberian apprentices who are learning the trade.”
His art evokes many reactions. The country’s Vice President, Joseph Boakai is a fan, and the President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has yet to share her opinion on his work.
Liberians aren’t often offended, however, and as one Liberian woman puts it:
“It’s not the steel’s fault that somebody made it into a gun to kill.”
UN Peacekeeping is looking at how innovation and technology can also help not only deliver in some of the most challenging environments but also to offer real value for money. All in an effort to ensure their Blue Helmets are true to their slogan of being ‘A Force for Peace, a Force for Change, and a Force for the Future’.
As the world is confronting many new challenges now, UN Peacekeeping is also evolving to try and meet them, and making continuous proactive efforts to help more people than ever through some of the most destructive conflicts.
In comparison, what Zbrzezny proves with his own efforts is that the world doesn’t need to just sit back as bystanders and in addition to the likes of UN and the many organisations, charity groups or NGO’s on the ground… individually any positive efforts towards the same universal aims must also be encouraged.
Emmanuel Freeman is someone who has been one of Zbrzezny’s many apprentices and was a child during most of the conflict and saw both of his parents slain.
“They were killed by guns. These are the same guns I am transforming today into something else,” he said.
“I am excited, happy and very pleased to do that, but sometimes when I am holding the scraps it reminds me what I saw during the war” he added.
Collectors who want a unique piece of Manfred Zbrzezny’s “Arms into Art” can visit fyrkuna.com to place orders and support Fyrkuna Metalwork’s mission.
And we would love to hear from more individuals on the ground in former and current conflicts who use creativity, innovation, art or other vehicles to promote peace and unity. Feel free to share these stories with us via our TWITTER or FACEBOOK pages which both get followed by a diverse and growing community worldwide.
For more about International Day of UN peacekeepers visit: www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/operations/pkday.shtml
See also the positive efforts by this great internatioanl campaign - www.peaceoneday.org
And visit the great online collection of stories from our traveling colleague Nico from the ground, who is currently based in Liberia. Here you will also find his first-hand blog post about hanging out with Manfred too: www.nicoparco.com
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