AK-47 interview (2007)

(click to enlarge)

Aurelio Madrid: Welcome back to Denver.  I hope your trip back is worthwhile & thanks for dropping by to help me with this interview on the AK-47.

Niels S_______: Thank you, the flight was a necessary evil to get from one place to another.  Anyway you’ve asked me to come by & help you with this interview on the AK-47.  I was looking online & found lots of things about the weapon, including the fact that 2007 is the weapon’s 60th anniversary.  Of course I’d like to open up with your interest with the weapon.  What brings you to this focus?

Aurelio: Well, a friend of mine (Steve Castellari) had a short intro to the AK-47 on his blog.  I then remembered that I had done some drawings a few years ago using firearms, I think I did about 5 or 6 of these.  I also made a framed artwork using 3 cut-outs of machine guns & assault rifles.  I also did a piece that I gave away a few years ago that was simply the name “AK-47” painted on a piece of primed linen.  I think I saw a photo of someone burying the rifle & I wanted to make an artwork using this grim icon, this was back in the early 90’s.

Niels: What were the drawings of, I mean, what kind of firearms?

Aurelio: One was a FN-FAL battle rifle, I think they’re from Belgium; another was a High Standard Supermatic .22 target pistol, a Ruger Mark II .22 target pistol, a Taurus 357 mag model 66, & a Wilson AR.15 combat rifle.  Most of the images were graphite on watercolor paper, with some acrylic & ink.  I really liked the notion of making artwork from firearms, since—at the time—I was doing some (or should I say lots of) artwork using cigarette imagery.  I kind of thought that the two things (firearms & cigarettes) had some similarities, they both are very controversial, they both are causes of death, they both have somewhat of a political charge, they also have some slight & overt sexual connotations as well—like say the Marlboro man & a gun slinging cowboy.  Of course none of this kind of iconography is without its own kind of ridiculousness, but it’s still part of our culture, it’s still out there.  … I wish I could come up with some more similarities, but those will have to do for now.

Niels: I know you’ve done lots of art using cigarettes; I hadn’t really made the connection with weapons.  I can see your point slightly.  Do you smoke or own firearms?

Aurelio: No, I’ve smoked when I was younger—it’s been worth it to not be hooked on the damn things still.  I just couldn’t stand to think that I was making these tobacco companies richer while they were helping me destroy my health.  I also try to be forgiving of those who are smoking.  My dad’s a heavy smoker & refuses to quit.  Nonetheless, nothing’s easy.  And no, I don’t own a firearm, nor I have I ever fired one, I’d like to someday, I think I’d like it–I wouldn’t want to own one though.

Niels: Okay, so you were drawn to the AK-47 for its symbolic value & its relationship with some of your previous investigations.  What did you find out when looking at the AK?–& what’s been written about it.

Aurelio: Good question.  You’ve already mentioned that 2007 is the 60th anniversary of the AK.  It was invented by Mikhail Kalashinikov back in ’47—hence the name (Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947), I think avtomat means automatic rifle in Russian.  As you know the Nazis were in Russia & Kalashnikov was fighting against them.  Although Hitler was defeated in Russia he still left plenty of destruction trying.  The little town Kalashnikov lived in (Bryansk) was defeated, although Kalashnikov lived to create the infamous weapon we know today, in the spirit of protecting the motherland from another such invasion.  As they say, the rest was history. 

Niels: Thankfully the Nazis are history.  Where did it go from there?

Aurelio: Well, its 1st appearance on the world stage wasn’t till the Vietnam War.  I guess communist Russia supplied the North Vietnamese with the weapon & our soldiers were armed with M16’s.  There is a story in a book I read by Larry Kahaner on the AK-47 that cites from the book Steel my Soldier’s Hearts (by Hackworth) that tells of some construction work (in Vietnam) that uncovered a Vietcong soldier & his AK.  Within minutes of finding the weapon Hackworth fired 30 rounds, as if nothing could stop this amazing rifle, which had just been pulled from the ground.  So needless to say, the AK rivaled the M16, which did not have the same durability, even after being buried for some time.  Americans are said to have stolen the AK from their dead rivals all the time.  The only problem with this is they couldn’t use ‘em in the dark, since their buddies would think it was the enemies’ firing, that is, by the difference in sound the two weapons make.  Amazing that one can tell the difference, but when you’re on the battle field, you train yourself or are trained to detect these subtleties—do or die—I suppose. 

Niels: Well you’re either dead or you’re not…you hopefully figure these things out.

Aurelio: Yeah, so the AK proved itself on the battlefield & then some.  What I think is remarkable is that this weapon’s lack of sophistication is what makes it so usable & durable.  I guess Kalashnikov worked with an old Russian notion that it’s easier to make something complicated & it’s much more difficult to make something simple.  The AK-47 earned its “street cred” in the jungles of Vietnam.  Kahaner then writes that we saw the AK back on the battlefield in the Soviet Invasion of Afganistan, back in the 70’s.  We (the US) were backing the Mujahadeen who were fighting their own communist government & the AK armed Soviets.  After some escalation of the war, the CIA decided they’d be better off using the enemy’s weapon & armed the Mujahadeen with AKs.  This is where we see the fruits of our labor backfire.  What I mean is that after the war, Afghanistan was left with lots of weapons (that we gave ‘em).  Then that’s where we see fundamentalist Islam taking hold of the region with the Taliban & Bin Laden. 

Niels: You’re right, every time I’ve seen pictures of Bin Laden He’s either beside the weapon or firing one.

Aurelio: He’s seen with the AK all the time.  I’ll purposely avoid covering all the implications this (the Afghanistan) war had on things we’re seeing to this day.

Niels: I’m glad you’re not choosing to go there now.  What about what we see in Africa?  Isn’t the AK influential there?

Aurelio: The AK is known as “the African credit card—Don’t leave home without it!”  Charles Taylor had his friend Gadhafi provide him with weapons, including AKs (possibly exchanging the arms with diamonds, I’m not sure of this) to drag the African country of Liberia through hell, till they spit him out.  I think that this is where you 1st start seeing the children soldiers as a phenomenon in Africa.  Taylor would give an AK to anyone who’d swear allegiance to him & his cause.  We also saw plenty of para-military activity in Central America as well, with child soldiers again fighting with AKs—including young girls.  The child soldier phenomenon is very sad & intriguing…

Niels: I’m trying to remember a book that came out this year…”A Long Way Gone” by Ishmeal Beah a former child soldier now living in the states.  I’d like to read it.

Aurelio: Yes, I’ve heard something about the book too on NPR.  I wonder how he made it to the states, to attend college, and then to write a book.  Maybe an American family brought him here.  I don’t know.  Thanks for the reading suggestion.  I’ll have to look him up online—Ishmeal…?

Niels: Beah.

Aurelio: Thanks.  …so the history, or continuing history of the AK in Africa, it’s a big deal there, so much bloodshed.  Other interesting phenomena in Africa are the gender issues & warfare.  I mean these kids/boys are fighting wars & armed with the AK & they instantly wield a certain power.  In an essay I found online by Henri Myrttinen (a Finn who focuses on masculinity & war.  This is from a paper he wrote titled Disarming Masculinities) he cites that “the AK-47 Kalashnikovs are part of a ‘Kalashnikov Culture.’…in places like Somalia an automatic rifle symbolizes rebellion in much of the world & masculine responses to social class elsewhere…in these conflict regions it simply would look odd for a man to be seen carrying anything other than a Kalashnikov.”  I also found another paper online (a summary of a talk given by Gary Barker).  The summary quotes Baker as saying that “…armed groups can become surrogate families that recruit men & young boys frustrated by their inability to achieve manhood.  Carrying an AK-47 is a tremendous way for a young boy to immediately acquire a degree of power…and jump from being a boy into being a man.” 

There are plenty of people who are working to understand this problem of masculinity, &/or its distortions, in child soldiers & other (vulnerable) groups of men.  How does one dismantle these cultural motifs of masculinity, where the boys have to see that being armed with a weapon isn’t the ultimate in manhood & power?  This should also take into consideration that boys aren’t all doing this under their own free-will; lots of them are forced into it too.

Niels: So there are these gender issues fraught with problems of culture & I might add, cultural instability, that present us with a deeper problem, which it’s not just the weapons that cause these problems, but also some twisted views of what it means to be a man.

Aurelio: You’re right & it’s within this aspect of the issue that I find similarities to my situation or what has come to my attention & by looking closely.  What I’m trying to say is that I seem to have a visceral attachment or desire for these weapons—although I don’t literally own one.  I think some men have a simlilar kind of attraction to weapons (all around the world), including these African boys who may see the weapons as a potent symbol of manliness.  It’s strange that I’d have this odd connection, but it’s probably not all that profound, just a basic need to fill a void, to fill an ego-gap that can’t be filled.

Niels: Yes the AK-47 is iconic & manly!

(…both laugh…)

Aurelio: Myrttinen also writes that: “Weapons are used as status symbols but also as tools to achieve economic & social gains, wielding power over unarmed males & females.  This can often be linked to a crisis of masculinity, when there is a fear of loss of male power & privileges through social transformations, leading to a backlash in which ‘traditional’ gender roles are reinforced.

I also found a policy brief titled Hitting the Target: Men & Guns that hits on this too: “Some of the most violent conflict settings in Africa have seen deliberate attempt by insurgency leaders to exploit the sense of powerlessness that many young men—unemployed & lacking status—may feel.  In Rwanda, Nigeria, Liberia, Uganda & Sierra Leone, local leaders have played up the frustrations of young men & actively encouraged, coerced & manipulated young men & boys to take up & use arms.

Niels: A crisis of Masculinity?  Have you heard of Leo Braudy?  He just came out with a book tiltled From Chivalry to Terrorism: War & the Changing Nature of Masculinity.

Aurelio: I have heard of him, in fact I’m looking at the book right now & I’ve listened to some talks & radio shows he’s done, promoting his book.  I’ll have to look deeper.  You have some great suggestions.  We’ll have to talk about this after I’ve read his book.  Have you read it?

Niels: No, not yet…my reading is piled high as it is. (…laughs…)  Okay so you have this “crisis of masculinity,” where do you go from there?

Aurelio: Well you probably remember the image I sent you when we were discussing this interview.

Niels: Oh yeah, you were holding an AK-47 & looking like quite the rebel—I’m thinking you looked Central (or South) American, like someone in the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) or  the Columbian FARC, maybe something like that & out of the requisite uniform of course…(laughing).

Aurelio: Thanks for the input but I’ll pass on that comparison, that wasn’t my intent, although I can easily see that the image is open to be misinterpreted, misread & misunderstood.

Niels: You’re right, sorry, I was just trying to play into the para-military theme we have going here!  And yes, it’s open to be misread.

Aurelio: Fair enough, but back to this “crisis of masculinity.”  It’s on this point that I draw another link to me & these “vulnerable” groups of men around the world.  Since I’m gay, I’ve found that these gender issues are always coming up.  It can be said that I’m not the sexual norm & I have had to form my own sexual identity without the help of the status quo—the norm.  Hence, gender issues hold a special relevance for me.  I try to look at these things from a unique vantage point.  So when I ask myself why am I holding this awful weapon, why did I choose to be photographed holding the weapon?  I’d have to say that part (not entirely) of the reason has to be a certain “crisis of masculinity.”  The connection to these other groups of men, & I’d have to say (partially), is my own insecurity, my own questions about my own sexuality & what that (my sexuality) is. 

Niels:  Are you saying that simply holding and posing for a picture with the AK-47 makes you feel like more of a man?

Aurelio: A little bit yes.  It’s really kind of awful to admit this to you, but sure, I couldn’t say no.  Here I am holding this symbol of so much death & problems in the world & I’m feeling manlier because of it!!  How screwed up is that?  How common is that?  It’s probably more common than I’d think.  This is the reason I’m so interested in the AK (& other weapons), it’s because of these very problems—nothing’s black & white, there are no easy answers, the self  as somewhat distorted.  Like I said, there’s this underlying “crisis of masculinity” as Myrttinen has it, not just for me but others as well.

Niels: Who will admit it, is another question.  Anyway, you mentioned that you’re planning to paint the image as well? 

Aurelio: Yes, I think it’ll be a gouache on paper, kind of small (under 8 ½” x 11”).  I’ll have to get to work on it soon.  I can’t wait to see what it’ll look like once it’s painted.  That should be an interesting self portrait.

Niels: Well, aren’t you Buddhist & doesn’t the religion advocate a kind of world peace (Kosen Rufu).

Aurelio: Yes & yes.  But, where’s the harm in taking a picture with an AK?  I mean what’s the message here?  I am with an AK-47 on its 60th anniversary, right & I’m asking myself what’s the significance of this object of war, where’s it from, what does it represent, what are its problems & what can I learn from myself (& others) using this weapon in a way that’s not hurting anyone?.  This is why I wanted to have you help me with this interview.  I wanted to sort this out, I wanted to think & talk about the weapon in my way.  I’m hopefully clarifying my understanding of the AK & all its baggage.  It’s loaded (pun intended)! 

My way of understanding this weapon has been to sort through books, online essays, & go to the library.  It has not been to go out, buy the weapon & kill people.  I’m trying to understand it intellectually.  I’ve also (as I mentioned earlier) recognized that this image can & might be misunderstood.  Isn’t that part of the job of the artist to reflect on the culture in which he or she lives—provocatively?  I can’t do this making a painting of a vase of flowers. 

Niels: Sure, the artist reflects so that we (the audience) can ask ourselves the questions the artist’s posing.

Aurelio: Hopefully—there’s no guaranty.  We’re running out of time & I think this is a good place to end the interview for now.  Niels, thank you again for all your help with this project & I know you’ll have some fun here in town.  We’ll talk about where you should go from here later.

Niels: Thanks, I learned some things about the AK-47 I didn’t know & will have to look into.  I’m looking forward to seeing the completed painting. I know you’ll do a fine job…you always do.  I’ll complement you ahead of time.  How’s that?

Aurelio: Thank you!

Niels: Thank you!

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