Fifteen thousand UN peacekeepers came to Liberia at the end of 2003 to ‘demilitarize’ the war against Charles Taylor and to support peaceful cohesion among the country’s new leaders, combatants, and refugee citizens. To decrease the chances of more bloodshed, they decided to buy all the guns. The UN paid $150 up front for any type of gun or 50 rounds of ammunition.After shuffling thousands of fighters through a three week demobilization program, the UN paid militants another $150 if they returned to their homes—likely destroyed—in their villages.
A journalist asked the UN Special Representative how the Demilitarization, Demobilization, Reintegration and Rehabilitation (DDRR) program in Liberia was going. “Fantastic, fantastic, I get compliments from everybody! More than fifty thousand demilitarized in five months, I don’t know anyone else who’s done that!”
Then it was all said and done, 50,000 souls De-De‘d and Re-Re’d and 18,000 guns bought by the UN. Liberia was disarmed. And then all those AK-47s, M16s, RPG launchers, and rifles were cut into three pieces, piled high on the Atlantic shores and deposited in makeshift containers with heavy padlocks. Then Liberia’s humid air attacked the harsh steel and transformed them from weapons of fear into ingots of rust. The scrap, inert like an abandoned anchor in the bottom of the ocean, lay in wait for somebody to come, for something to happen.
Back in 1989, when Liberia’s civil war erupted, Manfred Zbrzezny was working as a blacksmith in Florence, Italy. He comes from the frigid north, near Hamburg, Germany. His father was a sailor and had abandoned his son to his mother. A neighbor picked up on the boy’s curiosity for fire and smashing metal bits with bare hands. Der Schmied (the blacksmith) was a powerful man and gave the boy the needed initiation with the art of fire.
Years later, Manfred fell in love with a Liberian woman, and in 2005 followed his heart to the land of Liberty where dead bodies scattered the streets in the daylight. It was a downed city, survival mattered while hunger and disease reigned. The scene rattled his cage and made him question humanity’s ability to coexist. Post war Monrovia left a mark, but if Liberia could remain peaceful, the country would rebuild.
Manfred returned in 2007 to sink his roots. He kept believing in the endless opportunity. He took a shot at importing old construction machinery purchased for pennies on the dollar. After transport, fees and the chronic bribery, he broke even and then when he tried again, he lost money. Still uninitiated in the West African tradition of ‘facilitation’, all he could do was mumble expletives and accept his hosts’ ways. Still, he was in love and probably the only man in Liberia with three Z’s in his last name.
Out of the blue, a restaurant owner called him up to create a banister using old machine gun parts leftover from the war. The banister depicted swordfish, and had some pretty obvious gun parts. Firearms turned into sea life… the idea was so heavily laden with meaning in the context of Liberia, how could he ignore the epiphany?
Manfred was then to give blacksmith classes to ex combatants, another attempt at reintegration. They used some of the 18,000 rusty guns as material. Ex combatants, broken guns…transformation. Somebody’s marketing department was in mid-orgasm when the funding ran out. He hadn’t taught but a few hundred Liberians the blacksmith trade. On the bright side, he inherited an entire container of weapon scrap, which is ironic in contrast with his first business venture to sell old machinery in Liberia.
The weapon scrap artist was armed. Word got out, and Manfred was discovered!
Save the Children commissioned a tree out of RPG launchers and shell casings that contained drawings and poems written by children from the city’s most iconic favela, West Point. The mini tree was auctioned off in London for over $30,000 USD, and the buyer was so impressed he sent Manfred another $2,500 USD to create a life size ‘Tree of Peace’ to be planted in Monrovia as a reminder of war and peace.
“Yeah, a real bargain” Manfred says with a hint of sarcasm, laughing off just how difficult it is to reshape weapon scrap. Gun steel is often combined with other elements (e.g. chromium, vanadium, molybdenum and omygodium) that give weapons ultra-resistance. This meteoritic density makes the AK-47 accurate while the gun’s simplicity allows the vastly untrained citizenry to pick it up and shoot 100 rounds in a few minutes. For innocent people, it means a short learning curve to become precise killers. For Manfred, it means a lot more time spent pounding the anvil.
Weapon Scrap War Memorabilia
That was 2011. Since then Manfred has become a superstar among Monrovia’s artists. If you don’t make the trip to his workshop in Brewersville, you’ll see him at an expat craft fair selling his evocative art next to otherwise typical gift stands hawking hand bags, fabrics and masks.
Buyers that weren’t affected by Liberia’s civil war outnumber those that were.
“The President doesn’t like the work, she comes to an event, sees my stand, and immediately moves to the other side. It’s an emotional thing, there is so much connected to it. It’s not ordinary material. Another Liberian woman told me it’s not the fault of the steel that they used it to kill people. No reaction surprises me anymore.”
Liberians are rarely offended, he says. This art evokes thoughtful responses, emotions of remembrance. On one occasion, the Vice President gave him kudos and a business card. Said he could call in an emergency. Other customers just want cool war art, so utterly disconnected from killing—or perhaps so involved with the concept of killing—owning transformed guns becomes a badge of honor.
“Americans love my work. They are the ultimate weapons culture. My compatriots, the Germans, don’t like it. They say it’s macabre. Let’s say they are a bit moralistic about war.”
Manfred struggled for the first couple of years. He struggled to become a full time artist but also struggled to find motivation to continue forging rusted arms. Having opened so many beers with his instantly famous AK-47 gas pressure piston bottle opener, I decided to pay him a visit.
Good Guns vs. Bad Guns
“I believe in what I do. I don’t believe in violence, but I believe in the good guns. War is not good guys versus bad guys, rather good guns versus bad guns. The UN had the good guns, and the rebels had the bad guns. The rebels weren’t bad people, but the guns were.”
Manfred creates his art in a makeshift workshop laid out among a couple containers. An assistant turns a bicycle wheel windmill in a small hearth while Manfred gazes into the flames watching the color of the steel change shades. This hearth, known as the ‘forge’, is fueled by wood charcoal.
Fire purifies metal. Refiners melt metals to remove impurities, especially precious metals like gold. Manfred is as much a blacksmith as a refiner. After the gun has been purified, he hammers new angles and shapes into the gun’s barrel, further deconstructing the firearm to eradicate the past. The resulting sculptures often embody nature, animals, flowers, trees, and complete the process of transformation from destroyer to creator.
Manfred removes the muzzle of a machine gun from the fire with tongs and starts crushing the end of the muzzle with a large hammer. After a dozen blows, he looks at me and explains.
“I can change the meaning of the bad guns. The bad guns were destroyed and have become obsolete. I take that, recreate something beautiful and change its use. There are several degrees of transformation, changing the object’s meaning three times in the process. In the end, the piece is laughing and mocking war.”
He lights a cigarette directly off the disfigured steel before setting it back into the forge and signals to his assistant to spin the wheel.
“The trick is to see the weapon behind the art. At first glance, you are not sure where the bottle opener is from, but this is a characteristic piece of the AK-47. You see, I work on the legacy of Mr. Kalashnikov. And the AK-47 is a bigger killer than the atomic bomb. That’s a fact.”
His workshop is itself a work of transformation. He crafted two saw tables from rocket launchers, a machine gun stool and an old helmet is filled with bits of metal. Palm trees and blue skies on the periphery make the whole thing seem out of place.
In his arsenal of items, I pick up a school bell, made from the rear end of an RPG launcher. The clapper on the inside is a transporting mechanism from an AK-47 and the handle is the muzzle from an American light rifle.
“Now it’s a school bell, I particularly like the piece. It has a nice sound and is so very different from what it originally was.”
Manfred tells me about his life as a weapons scrap artist. How his candlesticks have traveled around the world, blessed by holy men. How despite an obvious light bulb, a lamp that appeared too weapon-shaped was confiscated at the airport. How his AK-47 bottle opener sits in my kitchen drawer.
No artist wants to appear typical. Art is not easy, and less when dealing with machine gun steel. No art students get AK-47s in Sculpture 101. Here he lives, bending steel, taking care of his wife and two daughters in one of Africa’s most devastated countries. Weapon scrap art is layered and defining success is just as complicated. Running out of weapon scrap would be success. If Liberia stays peaceful, that would be an even greater success.
While the forge burns another machine gun part is transformed into art. Genuine artistic fulfillment lies in transformation, the transformation of the metal and the transformation of the artist.