Across Africa, AK-47’s have been the weapon of choice during liberation struggles and wars; they are also used in cash-in-transit heists and other crimes. But artist Ralph Ziman sees art in these weapons of destruction. With the help of Zimbabwean wire beaders, he illuminates our fascination in an absorbing way, through beaded beauty. (Images: Ralph Ziman)
Melissa Jane Cook
In South Africa – as in much of the rest of Africa – AK-47s arouse feelings of fear and paranoia, mayhem and death. Yet there is also a deep reverence for the widow-maker, as Mikhail Kalashnikov’s rifle has been named.
Across Africa, it has been the weapon of choice during liberation struggles and wars; it is also used in cash-in-transit heists and other crimes. But artist Ralph Ziman sees art in these weapons of destruction. With the help of Zimbabwean wire beaders, he illuminates our fascination in an absorbing way, through beaded beauty.
Gun culture is prevalent in South Africa. In an artistic reversal, Ziman spent six months collaborating with artists and building the weapons of art. Together they have created an exhibition of beaded guns as an expression of colour and beauty. The Zimbabwean craftsmen created replica guns from wire and beads, and then were photographed in downtown Joburg by Ziman for his exhibition, Ghosts.
“I had six Zimbabwean artists use traditional African beads and wire to manufacture several hundred replica bead guns like AK-47s, as well as several replica bead general purpose machine guns, along with the ammunition,” Ziman told The Guardian. It was a response to the guns sent into that culture. The project “represents an aesthetic, anti-lethal cultural response, a visual export out of Africa. And the bead guns themselves, manufactured in Africa, are currently being shipped to the USA and Europe. This bead/arms project provided six months full-time work for half a dozen craftsmen who got a well-deserved break from making wire animals for tourists.”
The AK-47 is an “incredibly iconic weapon that is loved, revered and fetishised in Africa”, Ziman opines on his website. In a country that is “gun crazy and part of everyday life”, he adds, “I remember going to parties as a teenager, if you looked at someone the wrong way, they would pull out a gun. That was just the way it was.”
South Africans, he believes, are intrigued by guns and in making to make art out of these war tools, Ziman is possibly demystifying the fear of the gun. The gun culture of the country was brought to the attention of the world with the Oscar Pistorius trial. On trial for shooting his girlfriend through the toilet door, witnesses have spoken of the Paralympic and Olympic athlete firing a weapon in a restaurant and out of the roof of a car.
The news is peppered with shootings, many of them accidental, such as children playing with their fathers’ guns. A case in point: a seven-year-old boy was critically wounded in the chest at Gallagher Estate, in Joburg on 28 April, where the HuntEx2014 gun exhibition was taking place. A man allegedly went into the toilet with his son, and his gun accidentally went off.
Ziman says it is what he sees as South Africa’s “continued obsession with guns” that inspired him to create Ghosts. He told The Guardian that “the whole country is so saturated with guns”. “The AK-47 especially has this almost mythical status, perhaps due to its role in the liberation struggle. We are fascinated with them, and I wanted to provoke a conversation, a debate, about that.”
This reverence for guns is not limited to South Africa, though, Ziman says. The AK-47 is “loved, revered, and fetishised” across Africa, despite being at the heart of bloody conflicts. The title of his exhibition, Ghosts, refers to those killed by the weapons, as well as those who traffick them.
Ghosts is a very different form of art. Ziman says: “Ghosts is a tribute to the shady, overpowering and threatening presence of guns in African cities. Sub-Saharan Africa is awash in weapons, countries that cannot feed, clothe or educate their populations can find the money to buy weapons.”
The photo shoot
The completed bead guns were the subject of a photo shoot in downtown Johannesburg. The guns are held by their makers, dressed in strange costumes, their faces hidden by masks and sunglasses. The resulting photographs look otherworldly with their fluorescent glow, illuminated as if by black light. But despite the surreal aesthetic of the series, a creeping uneasiness seeps in as the AK-47 sculptures bear weighty connotations. Ziman’s intention is political: “Ghosts prods the viewers to learn more about the arms trafficking industry from powerful, foreign nations to Africa and the violence and injustice it has bred,” he says.
The South African artist
Ziman was born in Johannesburg in 1963. He grew up in South Africa, and according to IMDB moved to the UK in 1984. He first considered the menacing role of guns in sub-Saharan Africa in 2004, when he was studying crime in Johannesburg. For one year, Ziman travelled alongside an elite police unit each night, listening to gun fire and watching the police and paramedics treat victims of gun shots. The artist’s time with the “tough-as-nails” police, many of whom were offered related jobs in Iraq, forced him to confront many questions about Africa’s arms trade. “How did all these guns get to Johannesburg?” Ziman says he wondered. “Who brought them in? Where did they come from?”
Best known for his Venice murals and music videos with the likes of Toni Braxton and the late Michael Jackson, Ziman also wrote and directed the film Jerusalema, South Africa’s 2009 Academy Awards official submission for the Foreign Language Film category. It tells the story of a young hoodlum’s rise from a small-time criminal to a powerful crime entrepreneur during the turbulent years before and after the fall of apartheid.
But Ghosts is a very different form of art. Ziman says: “Ghosts is a tribute to the shady, overpowering and threatening presence of guns in African cities. Sub-Saharan Africa is awash in weapons, countries that cannot feed, clothe or educate their populations can find the money to buy weapons.”
He has always loved the brightly coloured beaded trinkets made by men – usually Zimbabwean – and sold at the side of the road around South Africa. In 2013, driven by the idea for Ghosts, he stopped his car one day in Joburg and approached some of the craftsmen, asking them to make him a replica of a Kalashnikov.
The craftsmen are Boas Manzvenga, Panganai Phiri, Lenon Tinarwo, Telmore Masangudza and Kennedy Mwashusha.
Craftsmen at work
“They thought I was crazy,” he says. “They laughed at me a lot, but they made it, and eventually they were making 10 or 12 a week for six months.”
They first made more life-like replica weapons, before turning to brighter colours: “The bright colours almost looked more dangerous, like the way they are used by poisonous animals in nature. They are ‘don’t mess with me’ colours.”
He shipped the replicas, plus about 1 000 hand-crafted rounds of fake ammunition, to Los Angeles, where they were auctioned to raise money for Human Rights Watch and Control Arms. “I like to see it as a sort of reversal of the arms trade,” he says.
The craftsmen are Boas Manzvenga, Panganai Phiri, Lenon Tinarwo, Telmore Masangudza and Kennedy Mwashusha. “These weapons are not realistic,” Ziman adds. “I didn’t do this to glamorise guns, but I did want it to be provocative. Dangerous yet beautiful, I wanted to start a conversation.”
Ghosts is at Cape Town’s Muti Gallery until 18 July.