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US Customs Officials Confiscate Sculpture Made of Weapons

Gonçalo Mabunda's throne is made of decommissioned weapons of war (photo courtesy Adam Solow)
Gonçalo Mabunda’s throne is made of decommissioned weapons of war. (photo courtesy Adam Solow)

A legal battle is brewing over a sculpture by Mozambican artist Gonçalo Mabunda after customs officials, considering it a weapon, confiscated it. Last Friday, Philadelphia attorney Adam Solow filed suit in federal court to recover the work, a throne crafted from decommissioned weapons of war, which he believes is currently residing in a General Order Warehouse in Camden, New Jersey.

Solow, a longtime collector of African art, had purchased the piece from Mabunda’s studio in Mozambique and had it shipped to him in April. Although it passed through Portugal smoothly, officials at Philadelphia’s US Customs and Border Patrol flagged it and informed Solow when he attempted to pick it up that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) would have to examine it. They then told him he would have to file a special permit with ATF to import firearms into the country and could pick up the sculpture only if ATF approved. After filing his application, Solow was told that he would have to dismantle the work and destroy parts of it in order for it to enter the country, he explained to Hyperallergic.

The grenades, rifle parts, and other forms of weaponry that compose the throne are all inoperable in their current states, but ATF told Solow that certain sections, if removed and fixed up, could function once more. The 94-lb sculpture is just one of many works Mabunda has welded from discarded munitions found in his native Mozambique. Originally used during the country’s 16-year civil war, they reached Mabunda through “Transforming Guns into Hoes,” a program launched by the Christian Council of Mozambique that offers local residents tools such as bicycles or sewing machines in exchange for the voluntary submission of their firearms.

Goncalo Mabunda's "Hope Throne" (2008) at the Museum of Arts and Design (photo by Karen Green/Flickr) (click to enlarge)
Goncalo Mabunda’s “Hope Throne” (2008) at the Museum of Arts and Design (photo by Karen Green/Flickr) (click to enlarge)

“If this piece was actually a firearm, ATF would have a legitimate argument,” Solow told Hyperallergic. “I don’t see how I could reconstitute this sculpture into a firearm, unless I was MacGyver. I can buy a real AK-47 five minutes from my house and have it after a two-minute background check. I can buy decommissioned grenades and shells on Amazon.com for $12.99. I am not optimistic of being successful in the litigation, but I hope that we can find a reasonable judge and US attorney who will see this for what it is — a piece of art.”

Solow likely has a good case on his hands, as other thrones by Mabunda have made it into the US without apparent problems. New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design is home to a similar piece, titled “Hope Throne,” while the Brooklyn Museum owns “Harmony Chair,” which the artist collaged from decommissioned handguns, bullet belts, and other weapons. Additionally, Ethan Cohen Fine Arts owns a number of Mabunda’s works made from bullets and guns, including a chair and a selection of masks.

“ATF hasn’t told the Brooklyn Museum to dismantle their sculpture. Ethan Cohen also has work by Mr. Mabunda, and he hasn’t had to dismantle any of it,” Solow said.

Mabunda’s sculptures have also appeared at Dusseldorf’s Museum Kunst Palast, London’s Hayward Gallery, and this year’s Venice Biennale, as part of the first Mozambican pavilion. Another throne of arms from the Christian Council’s program, made by artist Cristovao Canhavato, is owned by the British Museum.

“Besides having a practical value — removing weapons from the social landscape of his country — [the thrones] also comment on the absurdity of war, national memory, and reconciliation in his country,” Solow said. A collector of African art for a decade, Solow is drawn to works with political messages and also owns piece by Chéri Samba, Chéri Cherin, Almighty God, and Twins Seven Seven. Mabunda’s throne would fit in well with his collection, but Solow first has to fight his legal battle.

“I am still waiting for a chance to meet my throne,” he said. “It has been detained for over five months.”

h/t Daily Mail

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