Ralph Ziman’s ‘Ghosts’ a Vividly Arresting African Aesthetic

Colours caught on fire and conceptually fierce – Ralph Ziman’s photographic series GHOSTS deals with the international arms trade and Africa, a trade that for the most part only goes in one direction: into Africa; and one that not only fuels, but also sustains conflict across the continent. Based in the City of Angels, Ziman is a revered writer-artist-film director and an extraordinarily humble human. He has directed over 400 videos for artists – with names being diverse as Ozzy Osbourne, Toni Braxton, Rod Stewart and Michael Jackson – while his work in film as writer/producer/director includes over six features (including 2008’s Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema). Big names and the bright lights of Hollywood aside, the heart of this hands-on visionary is never far from his home country, South Africa… Especially when it came to GHOSTS, the ambitious beaded arms project that provided six months of full-time work for half a dozen craftsmen who got a well-deserved break from making wire animals for tourists. Beware: long after their exhibition life is over, these Ghosts will continue to haunt you. It’s up to you to keep their dialogue alive.



The AK-47 is incredibly iconic weapon that is loved, revered and fetishized in Africa. You can find them in the hands of criminal gangs in Johannesburg, government thugs in Zimbabwe, bloodthirsty M23 rebels in Congo, Somali pirates off the coast of East Africa and maniacs like Joseph Kony in Uganda. In a strange twist of fate a Ukrainian ship hijacked by Somali pirates was found to be carrying ten thousand AK-47’s bound for Sudan.

From South African president Jacob Zuma singing ‘Lethu Mshiniwam’ – which translates to ‘Get me my machine gun’ – to adoring supporters at political rallies, to Charles Taylor toting an AK-47 in war torn Monrovia, even Mozambique’s flag features a hammer and sickle style emblem with an AK-47. Yes, the AK-47 is part of the country’s coat of arms and is stamped on its flags and passports. The UN 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-47’s. Ninety percent of all casualties in wars around the world are caused by small arms. Eighty percent of those killed are civilians.




The inspiration for the work GHOSTS is to capture the unseen traffickers and the nameless, faceless people who are killed. The work was done over a period of six months; and, like, finding a solution for the problem it confronts, it was only made possible through the close engagement with others’, courage, hope and utter commitment to the task at hand.

Ralph gives insight into his journey – one shared, always remembered, and one that would ultimately execute into the challenging photographs of GHOSTS…:

“I had six Zimbabwean artists use traditional African beads and wire to manufacture several hundred replica beaded guns like AK-47s, and several replica beaded general purpose machine guns (GPMGs), along with ammunition. Upon completion, beaded guns were the subject of a photo-shoot in crime ridden downtown Johannesburg.

The subjects of the photo shoot were the artists who made the guns, several construction workers who happened to witness the shoot, and a member of the South African Police Services who just wanted his picture taken. What amazed me was that everyone knew how to ‘model’ a gun, how to dress, how to stand, what poses a rebel or soldier or general strikes.”




“We often see stereotypical images of Africans, soldiers, rebels, fighters, with guns but somehow this is different, it’s non-lethal, brightly colored, strangely beautiful and sad at the same time.

It became sort of like a Vogue fashion shoot, but different. A subverted fashion show. Shocking, beautiful and sad.

In response to the guns sent into African culture and to subvert the destructive cycle of the international arms trade, the images represent a purely aesthetic, anti-lethal cultural response, a visual export out of Africa. Furthermore the beaded guns themselves, manufactured in Africa, will to be shipped to the USA and Europe.” (Ziman)



Guto Busab – filmmaker, photographer, artist, and owner at MUTI in Cape Town – knows Ralph as a friend and a collaborator and used the gallery space of MUTI productions for a solo exhibition of GHOSTS in Cape Town. Guto shares some words about the project…

“The AK-47 is regarded as one of the most poignant designs of our time. The tragic irony of its social relevance is that it has killed more people in mankind’s history than any other weapon. The art and design events happening in Cape Town this year, as part of the World Design Capital 2014, were not addressing hard-pressed issues such as the devastating effect of lethal weapons entering war-torn African countries.

I always favour art that is multi-dimensional, provocative and that ignites debate. Ralph’s work did just that. It made people think about the importance and responsibility of design.

It was fascinating seeing the publics’ response to the work. Many felt a certain uneasiness about admiring the striking beauty of the works while subconsciously being effected by its dark subject matter.








Ralph Ziman

The Artisans:
Boas Manzvenga, Panganai Phiri, Lenon Tinarwo, Telmore Masangudza, Kennedy Mwashusha

Photo Credits: (named according to appearance inside post)

Image 1: Ralph Ziman, ‘U Sathane Oboumvu’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 2: Ralph Ziman, ‘Beware of Ghosts’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 3: Ralph Ziman, ‘Cash for Chaos’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 4: Ralph Ziman, ‘Chig Waga Waga’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 5: Ralph Ziman, ‘Chig Waga Waga Changu’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 6: Ralph Ziman, ‘Hondo’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 7: Ralph Ziman, ‘Mabara Enyu’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 8: Ralph Ziman, ‘Masoja’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 9: Ralph Ziman, ‘Murarabungu Chigwagwaga’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 10: Ralph Ziman, ‘Murabungu Chigwagwaga’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 11: Ralph Ziman, ‘Tokoloshe’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 12: Ralph Ziman, ‘Tokoloshe’, U Sathane Obomvu’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 13: Ralph Ziman, ‘uKungu’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 13: Ralph Ziman, ‘um-Khoba’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 15: Ralph Ziman, ‘umholi’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 16: Ralph Ziman, ‘U Sathane Obomvu’, GHOSTS, 2014
Image 17: Ralph Ziman, ‘U Sathane Obomvu’, GHOSTS, 2014


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