Peace Art Project Cambodia: Turning AK-47s into Art

LEADak47sI always enjoyed making things even as a very young child,” explains Sasha Constable as she sits in the garden of her parents’ home in the village of Norton-sub-Hamdon, in the English county of Somerset. After leaving school she intended to study painting, but an art foundation course introduced her to sculpture: “I just loved the more tactile, physical side of making sculptures so I specialized in that.”

Sasha, 33, is maintaining a family artistic tradition — she is the great-great-great-granddaughter of the master landscape painter, John Constable (1776-1837). Every generation of the family since has produced at least one artist. “I’ve been surrounded by art; you can’t look around this house without seeing a painting or a drawing or a sculpture,” she says.

Her current project, though, has taken her far away from this quiet village. In July 2003, she and small weapons specialist, Neil Wilford, established the Peace Art Project Cambodia (PAPC) based in the capital, Phnom Penh. “Neil was working for the European Union on a disarmament project and the idea started as a conversation over a couple of beers, discussing the possibility of setting up a program loosely based on the Mozambique ‘Swords to Ploughshares’ scheme.” This project, begun in 1992, offered tools — such as ploughs, sewing machines — to anyone who handed over a weapon following the end of the long-running civil war in Mozambique.

Sasha Constable and Chhay Bunna at the opening of “Elements” at the Java Gallery in Phnom Penh.
Sasha Constable and Chhay Bunna at the opening of “Elements” at the Java Gallery in Phnom Penh.

Since the end of the decades of armed conflict in 1998, Cambodia has been dealing with a huge amount of weaponry still at large among the general population. Between 1999 and 2004, the government, with the help of the European Union Assistance on Curbing Small Arms in Cambodia, has destroyed 125,000 weapons. Huge bonfires of firearms have publicly displayed Cambodia’s determination to create a weapons-free society.

Some of these weapons, however, have been donated to the PAPC and are sculpted, forged or welded into artworks by student artists. Birds, flowers, even an elephant, are some of their creations.

Sasha’s love affair with Asia began in 1989 before she began a degree course in sculpture at Wimbledon School of Art in London. “I went out to meet a friend in Thailand, who was traveling on a gap year. I spent three months there and really enjoyed it. During the last seven or eight years I’ve returned to Asia many times, in particular Cambodia,” she says. The stone carvings, the sculptures and the culture appealed to her. “I gained inspiration and ideas while traveling, came home and produced a body of work. I would then sell enough pieces to buy a flight back and do the same thing again.” She has exhibited her work, both sculpture and prints, in over 40 exhibitions and held four solo shows.

Sasha has been based in Cambodia since November 2000 when she was appointed Artist in Residence by the World Monuments Fund, a non-profit organization that preserves historic buildings worldwide. This gave her the opportunity to study the Cambodian Temples. “They are amazing, awesome buildings. I never get bored with them, I can still spend whole days out there,” she says, smiling at the recollection.

In May 2003, she and Neil Wilford began talking seriously about the possibility of launching PAPC and drafted a proposal. “I spent the whole of that summer sending it to people, trying to get support. Not an easy job, getting money for an idea, but I was fortunate that many people I met were very supportive. Paddy Ashdown (a former British politician who is now the European Union’s Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina) wrote a covering letter, which I’m sure helped us a lot.” Actresses Emma Thompson and Angelina Jolie and model Stella Tennant are among the list of fund donors.

Aerial view of the PAPC workshop.
Aerial view of the PAPC workshop.

The project began in November 2003. Sasha approached the Dean of the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh with the idea of making the project a part of the curriculum for a number of the students. “The university designated me a level three sculpture group and it went from there. The university was happy for their students to be doing this as it was a wonderful opportunity for them to learn another skill that the university couldn’t offer.”

After some theoretical work, the students moved to the PAPC workshop to learn the basic skills they would need. In January 2004, they began to craft their art from the decommissioned weapons, mainly AK-47 and M-16 rifles.

During the first few months of the project Sasha was joined by three other artists who were also happy to pass on their skills — Mark Solomon, an American artist and blacksmith, Joe Rush, an English metal sculptor and Toby Poolman, an English furniture design specialist. Sasha believes that this worked well. “It was really good having different artists coming in, giving the students new ideas and approaches, giving them lots of different ways of creating something and then leaving them to make their own mind up. We haven’t told them to do anything in particular — all the images are their own creation.” Sasha is full of praise for the students. “They’ve created some amazing stuff — it’s probably the first time they’ve had the opportunity to do exactly what they want.”

An exhibition in Phnom Penh was arranged to display the first pieces of sculpture created in the workshop. “It went down very well, about 70 or 80 percent of the work was sold. It was a good start,” Sasha said. “The students kept on producing and I had to begin marketing because we soon had a workshop full of these amazing creations.”

The PAPC is hoping to graduate the first students and replace them with a new group. Other students have shown great interest in the project and are eager to have a go themselves. But the continuation of the program is dependent on funding. “Fingers crossed,” says Sasha, “we have sent out our proposal to a number of foundations and we need to contact potential private donors — but it’s not easy.”

Once back in Cambodia, after her short stay at home, Sasha is hoping that the project can continue, become self-financing and be run by the students themselves. Various institutions around the world have requested items to display and apparently the US Ambassador in Phnom Penh has shown an interest in buying some sculpture for his office.

The students are so grateful for the opportunity the PAPC has given them. “They are hungry to learn and they pick things up quickly,” says Sasha.

And what of Sasha’s future? “I need to step back and start doing my own work again. I haven’t had a chance to do anything for over a year. Maybe I can work alongside the students for a while, instead of coordinating things.” But whatever she does, Cambodia has left an indelible mark on her. “I’ll be going back to visit for the rest of my life. There’s something that’s seeped into me. It’ll be interesting to see what I produce after this experience.”

For More Info

www.peaceartprojectcambodia.org

 

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