Filmmaker and artist Ralph Ziman helps unmask some of Africa’s truths

The South African artist discusses film and art as mediums of creative expression.

Award-winning South African filmmaker and artist Ralph Ziman lives with his wife and kids in Los Angeles. His repertoire of music videos includes big Hollywood names like Michael Jackson and Ozzy Osbourne, but his film and art career is an entirely different story. Loaded with weighty political issues like the arms trade in Africa, and crime and corruption in post-apartheid cities, Ziman’s art projects and films are spaces in which he explores the harsh realities of his birthplace. 

His 2008 film Jerusalema, which tells the story of a young boy’s rise from a small-time hoodlum to a crime boss, garnered critical acclaim and was entered into the Academy Awards’ Foreign Language division in 2009. Ziman’s art series Ghosts and the Resistance Project both spark debate about gun violence, arms dealing and the subsequent implications of this.

When we asked how film and art differ as mediums of creative expression, Ziman said:

“Art gives you a lot more creative freedom. Film should ideally be the same but when budgets and money are involved it changes everything. When I'm immersed in art I wonder why I ever do film, but film is all encompassing, it gets in your blood, and in your being.”

In Ghosts, Ziman commissioned six Zimbabwean artists to create a series of machine guns made from wire and beads, and then pose with the guns in a photo shoot in downtown Johannesburg. The result is a powerful and haunting set of images that highlight both the fear and worship of guns in African culture. For Ziman the images represent an “anti-lethal cultural response” to the international arms trade.

The AK-47 machine gun takes centre stage in the Ghosts images, and for Ziman it holds particular significance in Africa – he refers to it as an “incredibly iconic weapon that is loved, revered and fetishized in Africa”. Ziman gives the examples of president Jacob Zuma’s “Get Me My Machine Gun” anthem, Liberia’s Charles Taylor carrying an AK-47 in war-torn Monrovia and Mozambique's flag featuring an AK-47.

Since its debut, Ghosts has blown up through the social sharing of the images on Instagram – the only platform Ziman uses to share his work.

“I think Instagram is perfect for art and sharing art. It's the only social media I use to do so. I'm amazed that people in Russia, the Ukraine, Argentina, Tokyo, Nairobi and England like my work and follow me. The reaction is instant, but I mostly post my street art on Instagram, less of the fine art and photography.”

The popularity on social media and positive response to Ghosts has inspired Ziman to expand the project beyond South Africa and deeper into Africa:   

“We have just completed a new series of Ghosts where we travelled to remote parts of Ethiopia. We took along seven beaded guns from Jo’burg (not fun going through security and customs). We went to remote places where people carry AK-47s and asked them to substitute the real guns for the beaded ones. Here, we photographed the Dassanech and Mursi warriors.”

The images and visuals of Ghosts continue to filter through Ziman’s current street art, further adding power and meaning to his message against arms trading in Africa. His latest mural When Worlds Collide is a collaboration with artist Bisco Smith and features Mursi Warriors surrounded by calligraphy and graffiti. Next up for Ziman? “A completely new project based on the decimation of wildlife in Africa.”