Ralph Ziman | The Ghosts ProjectMay 12, 2023
Ralph Ziman | The Ghosts Project
The total life of man is reflected in his art. And so when people come to us and say, “Why are you… you artists so political?” I don’t know what they are talking about. Because art is political. And further more I’d say this, that those who tell you “Do not put too much politics in your art,” are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is. And what they are saying is not don’t introduce politics. What they are saying is don’t upset the system. They are just as political as any of us. It’s only that they are on the other side. Now in my enthusiasm, art cannot be on the side of the oppressor.
(Chinua Achebe in conversation with James Baldwin, 1981)
The ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish.
Since approximately 2014, South African filmmaker and artist Ralph Ziman’s The Ghosts Project has been enacted in a number of nation states in Africa. In Ziman’s words: “Arms that are paid for and imported into Africa are being used by individuals not just for defense but often by corrupt, autocratic governments to oppress their own people. This body of work 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.”
One aspect of the project involved Ziman photographing “Zimbabwean street vendors wielding handmade replicas of AK-47s which are adorned in traditional Shona-style beading. The multimedia project aims to highlight the international arms trade and its devastating influence.
Another iteration of this performative hybrid of fine craft and photography – and also an intervention into public spaces – is as follows: “I had six Zimbabwean artists use traditional African beads and wire to manufacture several hundred replica bead/guns like AK-47s, as well as several replica bead/general purpose machine guns (GPMGs), along with the ammunition. In response to the guns sent into that culture, the mural represents an aesthetic, anti-lethal cultural response, a visual export out of Africa. And the bead/guns themselves, manufactured in Africa, are currently being shipped to the USA and Europe. This bead/arms project provided six months full-time work for half a dozen craftsman who got well deserved break from making wire animals for tourists.
The completed bead/guns were the subject of a photo-shoot in crime ridden downtown Johannesburg. The subjects 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.” (from here)
Ralph Ziman was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and currently lives and works in Los Angeles, California : “His practice is motivated by a sense of social responsibility toward global politics. Using imagery that is at once vivid and dark, he comments on serious issues such as life under apartheid, the arms trade and trophy hunting. His work extends across a variety of media, including film, photography, public intervention, sculpture, and installation.”
More of Ralph Ziman’s work can be seen here.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
Dorothea Lange | A family of drought refugees from Abilene, Texas, on the road in California | 1936May 4, 2023
Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965) | A family of drought refugees from Abilene, Texas, on the road in California | 1936
“The depression was making people disappear.
They vanished from factories and warehouses and workshops, the number of toilers halving, then halving again, until finally all were gone, the doors closed and padlocked, the buildings like tombs. They vanished from the lunchtime spots where they used to congregate, the diners and deli counters where they would grab coffee on the way in or a slice of pie on the way out.
They disappeared from the streets.
They were whisked from the apartments whose rents they couldn’t meet and carted out of the homes whose mortgages they couldn’t keep pace with, lending once thriving neighborhoods a desolate air, broken windows on porches and trash strewn across overgrown yards. They disappeared from the buses and streetcars, choosing to wear out their shoe leather rather than drop another dime down the driver’s metal bucket. They disappeared from shops and markets, because if you yourself could spend a few hours to build it, sew it, repair it, reline it, reshod it, reclod it, or reinvent it for some other purpose, you sure as hell weren’t going to buy a new one.
They disappeared from bedrooms, seeking solace where they could: a speakeasy, or, once the mistake of Prohibition had been corrected, a reopened tavern, or another woman’s arms—someone who might not have known their name and certainly didn’t know their faults well enough to judge them, someone who needed a laugh as badly as they did.
They disappeared, but never before your eyes; they never had that magic. It was like a shadow when the sun has set; you don’t notice the shadow’s absence because you expect it. But the next morning the sun rises, and the shadow’s still gone.”
(Thomas Mullen, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers)
I have a tendency in my research to fall down rabbit holes: this is often shaped by history (my interest – which has manifested on this site – in post Soviet artists, for example) and of late The Great Depression has been a point of interest. My enjoyment of horror intersects here, so I will confess that I came to the author that I quote liberally above (whose book follows two brothers whom are bank robbers during the Great Depression, harshly factual and researched, but they find they are resurrected each time they’re killed in one of their robberies) through Daniel Knauf’s Carnivàle series. But, like another writer has pointed out, improbability and violence overflow from ordinary life, and the Great Depression was a time more, perhaps, malleable than most, as many assumptions were fractured irreparably…
And the horrors experienced by many from the Crash of 1929 through the Depression were ‘unimaginable’ to many, until they became commonplace, and now, it seems, have been forgotten. This is similar to how we forget that Lange’s subjects are not just icons but actual people who lived, suffered and died.
To many, Lange’s work requires no introduction. Many of her photographs are so stitched into the fabric of a communal history that they act as signifiers for collective memories. Nonetheless: Dorothea Lange “was an American documentary photographer and photojournalist, best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange’s photographs influenced the development of documentary photography and humanized the consequences of the Great Depression.” (from here)
I return to Mullen’s book that had flavours of horror, but not in the way I expected, as it was more historical than ‘supernatural’ horror:
“Ten feet behind them, standing at the base of an arc light and looking in the opposite direction, was a young, balding man who Weston supposed was the father. The man looked as if he were trying very hard to become invisible.
When you bump into an old acquaintance on the street, you ask him how he’s doing. He tells you a story and then you tell him your story, and both of you are trying to see where you fit within the other’s. Your story says: This is the way the world is, and I’m the center, over here. But if the other guy tells a different story, with the world like this, where the center’s actually over here, then you realize that you’re way off to the side.
This man did not need to be told he was off to the side. He clearly realized it.”
More of Lange’s work – both her iconic images of The Great Depression and her later work that was more local but considered the same issues of justice and equality – can be seen here.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More