Created in response to the international arms trade, Ghosts is a multimedia project by South African artist and filmmaker Ralph Ziman. The body of work highlights the reality that most of this trade is targeted in the direction of Africa, subsequently fuelling and sustaining conflict across the continent.
Ziman’s research revealed that according to UN estimates, more than seventy million of the five hundred million small arms in circulation around the world are AK-47s. Furthermore, ninety percent of all casualties in wars around the world are caused by small arms, and eighty percent of those killed are civilians. These alarming facts served as inspiration for Ghosts.
As the starting point Ziman had six Zimbabwean artists use traditional African beads and wire to manufacture several hundred beaded AK-47s; replicas of an iconic weapon which has come to be revered and grossly fetishized in Africa. Once completed, the beaded guns were the subject of a photo shoot in downtown Johannesburg, resulting in a series of images that are vivid, unsettling, and strangely beautiful.
In light of the significant response that Ghosts has been generating, we found out more about the work from the artist himself:
Tell us more about your project, Ghosts, and the intention behind it.
While spending time in Johannesburg I was, like everyone else, horrified by the crime and the proliferation of weapons. The ease with which they can be acquired and the fascination the culture has with guns in general and the AK-47 in particular. The way that struggle songs lionize the gun. The sound the gun makes, the look of it. I wanted to challenge those perceptions and to find a way to explore the subject. I wondered about who was shipping the guns into Africa. I wanted to manufacture non-lethal weapons in Africa and ship them to the west. In the end we made several hundred beaded guns, thousands of rounds of bead ammunition and shipped them in a container to the US.
How long has Ghosts been in the making?
It’s been just over a year, from the time we had the first ‘prototype’ manufactured until now. The project just kept growing.
What sort of research did you do before embarking on the project?
I read a lot about the arms trade. How it works, where the weapons come from, how one supplier sells weapons to both sides in a conflict. The arms are supplied on ‘credit’, so African countries then have to use their GNP to pay the loans and interest for years. I have spent years researching crime and violence in South Africa. I’ve talked to cops and criminals. I met a guy in the townships years ago who used to rent out AK-47s to criminals and the bullets were sold on ‘apro’. If you didn’t use the bullets, you could return them with the weapon for a refund.
Could you explain your thinking around the various components of the project? What role do each of these play?
The guns are where it all started. A piece of sculpture, something to hold. Tactile, real, heavy in your hands. We manufactured them for about six months nonstop, and we also made several thousand rounds of ammunition. When we were done, we photographed the guns with the artists who made them as models. I worked with my good friend and long-time collaborator Nic Hofmeyr as technical consultant for the photo shoot. The guns and photography from this collaboration will be included in my upcoming show at C.A.V.E. Gallery. This is the “fine art” component that I use to drive the message with these really compelling, haunting images that people are really responding to. The guns will be worked into installations meant to demonstrate the onslaught and constant presence of these weapons – mounted on every wall of the gallery, spilling out of shipping crates…the idea is to overwhelm. Work sold at the show will also help raise money for the cause, with proceeds donated to Human Rights Watch.
The murals are street art, which has always been a passion of mine because it is so unpretentious. You don’t have to go to a gallery, there’s nothing snobby or highbrow about it. If people like it they photograph it and post it online. It’s a really good way of getting the message out and getting noticed.
The money is symbolic of the arms trade. Third world countries that can’t afford to educate and feed their populations seem to find money to buy arms in vast quantities.
The stickers are another kind of street art, another way of getting the message out. It’s also something inexpensive that people who like the work can collect.
While they’re addressing a very serious issue, the images and the weapons themselves are visually stunning. How do you think this helps to strengthen the message behind them?
I think that there is a seductiveness and a beauty to the guns. In nature, creatures and plants that are deadly, poisonous or lethal are often brightly colored. Like a poisonous snake or spider, to which you are simultaneously attracted and repulsed.
Do you have plans to exhibit Ghosts elsewhere after the show at C.A.V.E Gallery in Los Angeles?
Yes, I’m talking to several galleries at the moment in the United States, Europe and South Africa. I really want to bring Ghosts home and get all my collaborators in one place.
What are your plans for the documentary component to Ghosts?
We are working on shooting a doccie based on the project. The idea is to take a dozen beaded AK-47s and travel to various war torn regions of Africa. We will create a second series of photographs, this time using real people in real situations – soldiers, children, rebels, peace-keepers and the likes. I want to talk to people about what the AK-47 means to them, what their experiences are of war, guns, violence, the arms trade and any anecdotal information they may have like stories and so forth.
Are you currently working on anything else?
Yes, I have another project in the planning phase and hope to kick off production later this year.
Further reading: rz-art.com
Ziman’s first solo exhibition, Ghosts will show at C.A.V.E Gallery in Los Angeles from February 8 until March 2, 2014. See more of the photographs below:
About the artist:
Ralph Ziman was born in Johannesburg in 1963. Beginning his career as a cameraman for the SABC, Ziman moved to the UK in the 80s after which he became a known and prolific director in the music video industry. Later, he segued into film, with over 6 features to date including the award-winning Hearts and Minds and Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema. Ziman currently stays in Los Angeles, and for the past few years has been getting back to his roots as an artist, painter and photographer.