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Student Review: Ghosts

Ralph Ziman at Muti Gallery

By Maxime Duterloo
24 April - 18 July. 0 Comment(s)
Murarabungu Chigwagwaga 1

Ralph Ziman
Murarabungu Chigwagwaga 1, 2014. Ultrachrome print on Moab Entrada 162 x 112 cm.

'Ghosts' by Johannesburg born artist, Ralph Ziman, initially opened at the Los Angeles C.A.V.E. gallery in February and in April opened at Cape Town’s MUTI gallery. It is the artist’s first solo exhibition in his home country. Ralph Ziman has an established name in the film industry, primarily for his extensive work in directing various music videos for world famous musicians that have won him a string of MTV movie awards – but also for feature films including the successful Jerusalem. In Los Angeles, he is also known as an artist mainly for his public art including five large murals in Venice. With this background in mind it seems no coincidence that his first solo exhibition as an artist would be at the MUTI gallery which is a MUTI film and photography production house project.

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At first glance the images bring to mind the Nontsikelelo Veleko's work – the same scenery of rundown industrial background with bright and beautiful clothing and ‘accessories’ of the subjects in the foreground. However upon closer inspection it is evident that these works are more than images of people, rather there is something darker about the imagery presented. 'Ghosts' deals with the subject of the arms trade using an unusual approach. As explained by the artist, he uses a type of ‘aposematic coloration’ as seen in nature. That is: the most poisonous and dangerous animals have the most beautifully bright and vivid colors that lure one in, and at the same time act as a sign of warning. This unsettling juxtaposition of something so beautiful yet so dangerous is evident in the series of photographs that make up the exhibition. The photographs depict men in industrial rundown scenes posing with brightly colored beaded AK-47 machine guns and some wearing vividly colored knitted clothing. The photographs create a sharp contrast, the colors, beads and knitted clothing compel the viewer and act as a lure into the darkness of the weighty subject matter. By addressing the issue in this manner, the artist aims to create dialogue about the culture of guns, crime and violence that is prevalent within the African context, and even more so to create a platform to discuss the deeper issue of arms trade. The AK-47 is used as an entry point into this dialogue because it is a weapon that has become iconic; it serves as the symbol of the cliché image of the African continent as this constant battle zone laden with child soldiers and rebels. The AK-47 as such has become fetishized in this manner, it is what fuels and sustains corruption across the continent. 

At the same time, however, the beaded AK-47s become less associated with guns and the violence surrounding them, but rather becomes transformed into a commodity. This is problematic as the sense of ‘Africa for sale’ that is inherent within the arms trade is exactly what the exhibition aims to confront and critique, not corroborate. The works carry a level of commodification and with this also a sense of generalization. Although the aim of the artist, according to the gallery statement, is “to confront the complex socioeconomic and political circumstances of the African arms trade as a whole” all of the images only portray soldiers, there is no portrayal of all the people and situations that the arms trade affects. The exhibition seems to lack complexity that is crucial when dealing with such a loaded subject matter. This apparent lack of complexity is evident in the superficiality of the images. The imagery depicts a generalized image of all the different African countries presenting them as if they make up one coherent whole, not paying close attention to the distinct differences within the various African cultures that exist.   

Hondo

Ralph Ziman
Hondo
2014
Ultrachrome print on Moab Entrada
162 x 112 cm

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Ziman has titled the works using words and phrases taken from Shona, Zulu, Swahili and Ndebele languages. These selected languages are predominantly spoken and belong to ethnic groups from the Southern and Southeastern African countries. As such, in terms of the titles there seems to be a strong neglect of West African countries. However with this being said, the imagery seems to reflect the contrary as the images have distinct West African cultural elements represented in them such as the mask, a feature that is not common within the Shona or Zulu cultures. As such the works are generalizing Africa as a whole, failing to recognize the distinct parts, making the work lack a true sense of complexity and criticality that are essential when exploring such a weighted and controversial subject matter. This type of generalizing is typical of an outside perspective about the Africa continent, in particular a Western view. Although Ziman is originally from South Africa, it is clear that his present Western environment, living in Los Angeles, impacts the work.

The lack of complexity becomes further emphasized by the slight commercial and glamorous characteristic that is apparent within the work. The works almost look like they could be photographs for a high fashion editorial shoot, again invoking a sense of inspiration from Veleko, or stills from a music video. As such the artist’s background within the glamorous film industry is reflected clearly upon the imagery presented. Additionally, the work invokes a ‘Benetton’ effect. Benetton was criticized for glamorizing violence in their advertising campaigns during the early 90’s, the approach by Ziman can be viewed in a similar light. The glamorizing characteristic seen in the images and the seemingly anti-lethal approach by Ziman to such a weighty subject matter, in turn downplays the true violence at hand. More than just downplaying the violent intrinsic nature of the arms trade industry into Africa, Zimans work glamorizes this violence by portraying the subjects as if part of a fashion editorial shoot. 

Nonetheless, the quality of the prints is astounding, and at the end of the day the exhibition does provoke dialogue about the culture of violence within the African context albeit in a glamorized manner. The weighty subject matter of arms trade is an important one, and any kind of attention drawn to it is important in order to spark debate and initiate action.