British artist and photographer Bran Symondson is known for his delicate and stunning sculptures using AK-47s as the canvas. He lusciously adorns decommissioned weapons with unusual materials, such as real butterflies, intricate origami, and global currencies, to provoke questions surrounding the fate of the natural world, humanities’ propensity for violence and the spoils of war. The bullet casings of each AK-47 are individually filled with symbolic materials sourced largely from war zones. Every sculpture tells a unique story through the thoughtful choice of materials.
The exhibition will be the first time works from across my career have been displayed together.
Symondson’s current practice is heavily inspired by his personal experiences of Afghanistan, as a soldier in 2008 and a photographer on assignment for The Sunday Times in 2010. The decorated AK- 47s hark back to the personalised firearms he witnessed young Afghani men brandish during the conflict. He was struck by these embellished weapons as a visual metaphor for innocence lost. An image he took of a young member of the Afghani National Police holding an AK-47 decorated with roses has become a cultural symbol of the Afghani conflict and can be regarded as the inspiration for Symondson’s sculptural practice.
Symondson’s upcoming solo exhibition at HOFA Gallery takes a considered look back at his experiences in Afghanistan and the development of his practice as a sculptor. It offers a unique personal perspective on a timely topic and presents an original approach to issues of conflict, war and violence, while inviting the viewer to look beyond the media and their preconceptions. Ahead of its opening, I caught up with him to hear more about the show.
Q: What are you planning for this exhibition at HOFA Gallery? What is the overall idea?
A: The exhibition will be the first time works from across my career have been displayed together. It’s called The Art to Disarm which I think is very fitting given the subject matter. The overall exhibition explores the notion of disarming the viewer, reframing weapons as art and attempting to take the fear away from such a loaded object.
Considering the recent news regarding Afghanistan, many people who I served with were reaching out to me and we were all reassuring each other that what we did there mattered and that we had saved lives. I think between this and the lockdowns, I was prompted to look back over my work as a whole and re-examine the images on my hard drive. I was shocked by how rich and diverse the pictures were, there were many moments I had forgotten. I was also reminded of how tough the tour was. I felt it was the right time to bring these photographs and artworks together in one show. The show came out of a long period of reflection.
Q: For this exhibition, you are bringing together works from across you practice. These include AK-47 sculptures, photographs, prints and even NFTs. Can you tell us about some of the pieces that will be included in the show?
A: There will be a mixture of my AK-47 sculptures, some using real butterflies, some with origami butterflies and some with real currency. Each sculpture is differentiated by its individual narrative, which informs all the material choices I make.
Working with AK-47s is a unique experience. I know the gun well, I have shot it, been shot at by it, I can strip it down and I can fire it. When it arrives at the studio, still covered in gun grease, it has a distinctive smell and appears to me as a weapon. Once I clean it and begin my work, the fact that it is a firearm disappears and it becomes a blank canvas.
Showing the photography with the AK-47 sculptures helps the viewer to see the evolution of my practice. Many of the ideas I explore now were born when I was photographing in Afghanistan in The Afghan National Police and many of the young boys there decorate their AK-47s with stickers, flowers and inscriptions – this was the inception of my current practice as a sculptor.
Q: How do you feel about your photos becoming well known cultural symbols of the Afghanistan conflict, and the way in which they are being revisited in light of current news? One of the photos you took previously appeared on the cover of The Sunday Times and became the front cover image of the book Farewell Kabul by Christina Lamb, for example?
A: It makes me quite proud. At the time when you take a photograph, you often don’t realise the weight of it. Time has a great way of making certain images more precious. I think Afghanistan is such a unique country that has been ravaged by centuries of conflict. I wanted to capture this; it is an important element of history. I wanted to offer people an opportunity to understand and to see another side of the country that they might not be aware of.
Q: Your last tour of Afghanistan was around ten years ago, since then where has your art practice taken you?
A: I made my first physical artwork in 2012 for the collaborative show with other artists such as Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Antony Gormley. I enjoyed this process so much that I continued and developed the practice of turning AK-47s into sculptures. Nonetheless, I have only recently connected with the idea that I am a sculptor.
I still don’t really feel like I’ve reached my peak, because life gets in the way, and COVID really impacted my plans. I had planned to exhibit in the USA last year, but it wasn’t possible. My next mission is to get abroad more and show my work around the world.
Q: Tell me about the new works for this show? Have you been exploring some new directions in the last year?
A: One of my newest pieces is Die 4 U, a sculpture of a giant love heart sweet submerged in AK-47 Bullets. I’ve also begun working with digital artwork and creating NFTs, which has taken me out of my comfort zone. Three new moving NFTs will be displayed at the exhibition.
They use natural elements such as flowers and mushrooms, appearing as if the weapon itself is part of an evolving ecosystem. Making these works is quite time consuming because I want them to be very precise and photorealistic while having complex meanings.
Q: Something that I find really compelling about your work is the material choice, you are very detail orientated and ensure your materials have complex meanings. Can you talk a little about what you choose and how you source your materials?
A: Everything I use is very symbolic and finding the materials is a time-consuming task. The butterflies are sourced from environmentally friendly suppliers across the UK and in America. I use real currency obtained from different locations globally. The bullet casings are hand-made in London and the bullet fillings are sourced dependent on the narrative of the art piece.
The weaponry must be ordered from specialists, one guy I often use does a lot of work with the military, the police, collectors and enthusiasts. He sources the AK-47s, the ammunition, the bayonets and the magazines from locations around the globe that he knows will be of interest to me depending on what I’m working on at the time.
I have worked with AK-47s from The Congo, Syria and Iraq, many of which have seen conflict. Some even have battle scars or damage. The piece Brutal To Beautiful, which will be displayed in the exhibition, even had a bullet strike going through it.
Q: One theme that’s prominent in your work, but might not be obvious to everyone, is the environment and climate change. It is something that’s perhaps hidden but is strongly related to everything you explore?
A: The environment has always been close to my heart. I love animals and have been visiting Africa my whole life. I grew up very in touch with nature. Seeing the environment being damaged impacts me, thankfully the issue has become something that people can no longer ignore. My piece The Beat of a Wing is a utopian vision of the environment healing.
Sometimes I think, wouldn’t it be amazing if nature was given a chance to breathe and repopulate. When we were in Lockdown, I remember standing on my balcony listening to the birds, there just seemed to be more wildlife. I want to do a lot more environmental work; I’m currently developing a film in Africa about anti-poaching.
Q: What do your friends from the military make of your work?
A: They tell me they like it. A lot of my clients are ex-military and I often give them a discount or throw in something extra. I guess I still have that band of brothers mentality. I have stayed in touch with many people I served with and overall, they are very supportive of me. In fact, in a weird kind of way, I respect their judgment more than anyone else’s.
Bran Symondson’s solo exhibition The Art to Disarm will take place at HOFA, London W1 from 26 th of November – 9 th of December 2021. For further information visit www.bransymondson.com
Art writer, curator and public relations specialist, focussed on platforming emerging talent across the visual culture sector. When not walking my dog in rainy East London parks, I can be found on my sofa writing articles for FAD magazine, Bricks Magazine, Art Plugged and Off the Block Magazine. Find me on Instagram @bellabonner