JOSEPH GROSS GALLERY SOLO SHOW
To call an AK-47 assault rifle an alluring object feels strange. Yet, at South African-born artist Ralph Ziman’s exhibition, “Ghosts,” running Sept. 8 through Nov. 4 at the Joseph Gross Gallery, that is the initial thought that comes to mind.
Featuring several beaded replica AK-47s and accompanied by large-scale, darkly printed and hyper-saturated photographs of men holding nonlethal weapons, the exhibition, despite the charged content, is incredibly quiet.
This is the compelling strangeness of Ziman’s work in “Ghosts”; it displaces the significance of the AK-47 from its global context, but only so far as to transport the underlying tension into a gallery space.
In a statement on his website, Ziman wrote “The U.N. estimates that there are more than five hundred million small arms in circulation around the world. More than seventy million of those are estimated to be AK-47s. Ninety percent of all casualties in wars around the world are caused by small arms. Eighty percent of those killed are civilians.”
Commencing in 2013 and 2014 out of Johannesburg, South Africa, Ziman’s work addresses the cultural proliferation of the AK-47 as both a violent weapon and a status symbol. Imitating the shape of the AK-47, the most common assault rifle worldwide, Ziman’s work recontextualizes the ubiquity of the gun.
“I kind of got obsessed with the idea of making AK-47s out of traditional African bead and wire,” Ziman said. “Initially I had met these guys that make bead and wire sculptures by the side of the road — they do chickens and zebras and all kinds of stuff, it’s very much the medium to sell to tourists — but they’re very beautiful. I said to the guys, ‘Make me an AK47,’ and they started laughing. I thought, ‘Hilarious.’ So we made one or two and then we went back the next week and said, ‘Let’s make some more, let’s make some more.’ ”
Working with Zimbabwean artists Boas Manzvenga, Panganai Phiri, Lenon Tinarwo, Telmore Masangudza and Kennedy Mwashusha, and photographer Nic Hofmeyr, Ziman helped to manufacture hundreds of replica AK-47 guns using traditional Shona beads and wire, a medium typical in their day-to-day craft. The beaded arms project provided full-time work to the artists for six months and resulted in the production of nearly 300 beaded AK-47s as well as thousands of rounds of beaded ammunition.
“We started by making them with these natural colors and then moved to very ornate colors and patterns, and then we started doing them in groups of reds, yellows, and greens and blues,” Ziman said.
The skill and craft inherent in the creation of these works is unmistakable. Intricate wire and bead is woven and strung tightly around the frame of the gun; each piece is a distinctly precious object. Each gun was crafted over the course of seven full days, and Ziman notes that each replica is particular to the individual who assembled it. No two are alike in pattern, coloring, size or form.
Necessarily disparate from their real-life counterparts, the beaded arms are strangely compelling, yet retain the implied danger of their actual use. This duality is integral to the relation of these works; it delineates the cultural symbol these guns hold in South Africa while also alluding to their function as an omnipresent accessory.
“In a way, the AK-47 was always a weapon of rebellion and is seen as a symbol of liberation,” Ziman said. “Being back in South Africa in ,  … you’d have 10,000 people singing ‘AK-47! ta-ta-ta!,’ making this noise. So the AK-47 has always been a kind of a mythic weapon in South Africa.”
As in the U.S. and other Western cultures, there is a pop culture fascination with weapons in South Africa, although Ziman notes that this intrigue is rather different than the understanding of weaponry in the U.S., where common civilians do not walk along the side of the road equipped with assault rifles.
What is apparent in Ziman’s work is the commonality of such arms. Following the initial exhibition of this work at C.A.V.E. Gallery in Venice, California in Jan. 2014, Ziman returned to South Africa to re-photograph the beaded arms. Traveling in the southeast tribal lands of Ethiopia, bordering northern Kenya and South Sudan, Ziman and his crew photographed people with AK-47s they encountered along the road, replacing their real guns with the beaded arms.
“In a way, they’re very alluring. … When you see the pictures, they’re kind of seductive but very dangerous at the same time,” he said. “This was a way to explore this whole culture of guns and weapons. And as we got into it I thought, ‘We’ll manufacture these weapons in South Africa and ship them out to the West.’ ”
In the West, the beaded arms remain an enticing and mythical object, each piece resting on the precipice of inherent danger and artistry. Visitors to “Ghosts” will marvel at the confusing sensation each work engages.
“They do have a deadly beauty. I’ve never had a gun, I’ve never fired a gun, but I thought it was an interesting way to talk about this,” Ziman said.
The Joseph Gross Gallery presents interdisciplinary exhibitions that bridge the gap between traditional and non-traditional art, from nationally and internationally recognized artists outside the community. The gallery strives to expand the audience for contemporary art and increase participation in a dialogue about the issues raised by our exhibitions. The Joseph Gross Gallery is committed to creating a level of scholarly excellence that provides our community opportunities to interact with the most innovative artists of our time.