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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 December, 2004, 00:37 GMT
Turning guns into art in Cambodia

By Rachel Harvey
BBC News, Cambodia

In a high-roofed warehouse on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, a group of Cambodian art students stood hunched over work benches, beating, welding and re-shaping pieces of twisted metal.

Sculpture made from guns
The sculptures are made from old guns, triggers and rifle butts
This was not any old metal, but triggers, gun barrels and rifle butts, all taken from decommissioned weapons.

In the hands of the young artists, such unpromising raw materials were being turned into pieces of art.

The workshop was full of starkly beautiful sculptures - a skeleton man with a hand-grenade head, an elephant with its trunk fashioned from the barrels of AK47s, a peacock whose fan-shaped tail was made from metal springs.

The Peace Art Project Cambodia was established in November 2003 by Neil Wilford, a small arms specialist with the European Union, and British artist Sasha Constable - the great, great, great granddaughter of the English master John Constable.

The students, who were selected from the Royal University of Fine Art in Phnom Penh, had never worked with metal before.

Sophan Samkhan
I hope the techniques I've learned here will help me set up my own workshop
Sophan Samkhan
"It's been phenomenal really," said Ms Constable. "We started using the weapons in January, and they've picked up the techniques so quickly.

"They are now proficient welders and use the forge and all the other machine tools."

The sculptures have been exhibited around the country, and some pieces sold to collectors abroad.

The project has offered new hope to the students, all of whom lived through the terrible violence of Cambodia's civil war.

Sophan Samkhan's father was murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Now he hopes his artistic skills will contribute to a more peaceful future.

"I hope the techniques I've learned here will help me set up my own workshop," he said, as he wiped his rust-stained hands on his blue overalls.

"I have three children and I really want them to grow up in a secure environment."

More than 100,000 small arms and mines have been handed in to the authorities since 1999, but there are still plenty of weapons in circulation.

Graphic film

At a village about four hours' drive from Phnom Penh, a TV and DVD player had been set up on the dusty ground next to the local Buddhist temple.

The films being shown told stories of simple everyday disputes, which escalated into bloodshed because of the presence of guns.

About 150 villagers gathered under the shade of a tree to watch.

Some were sitting on their plastic flip-flops, using them as cushions. All were staring at the small screen with expressions of rapt attention.

"Watching the films was scary," said one woman, her teeth stained dark red with beetle nut juice.

Villagers watching a film about the hazards of guns
A film about the hazards of guns brought home their violent reality
"It reminded me of all the violence of the past," she said.

A man who described himself as a simple rice farmer said he used to have a gun but he had already handed it in to the army.

"I worry about people using guns when they've been drinking," he said.

The films were commissioned and distributed by a non-governmental organisation called Church World Service.

It is just a small part of a broader effort to try to get people to give up their weapons.

"There is still violence and it does still involve guns," said the group's country director, Josephine Barber.

"This is an effort to change that culture dramatically so that it doesn't effect the next generation."

Guns that are handed in to the authorities are piled up and burned in special ceremonies called "Flames of Peace".

The ceremonies serve a symbolic as well as practical purpose.

The heat renders the weapons useless as tools of war.

But the blackened remains may still have a role to play in Cambodia. They could end up in the workshop of the Peace Art Project.

In the hands of an artist, even weapons can be manipulated into objects of beauty, but it can be an emotionally draining process.

"It's a devastating material to use," said Sasha Constable as she looked around the workshop at the haunting images.

"You can't help but think about what this machine has done to affect so many lives."

And that is really the point. These sculptures are political art at its most powerful - relics of a violent past transformed into expressions of hope for a more peaceful future.

Cambodia burns weapons
24 Oct 01 |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia's health lottery
02 Nov 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Cambodia
29 Oct 04 |  Country profiles

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