RALPH ZIMAN: Faster than a speeding bullet
RALPH ZIMAN is a South African artist, director and writer. He has directed over 400 videos for artists as diverse as Ozzy Osbourne, Toni Braxton, Rod Stewart, Michael Jackson, Shania Twain and Rick James, winning numerous MTV awards. His work in film includes over 6 features as a writer-director-producer, including Hearts and Minds, the first independent South African feature film to be completed after apartheid, it premiered at the Berlin and Montreal International Film Festivals; and Jerusalem (Gangster’s Paradise in the US & UK), released to critical and box office acclaim. His public art includes five murals in Venice and a forthcoming one privately commissioned in Santa Monica.
For his most recent project, he photographed Zimbabwean street vendors wielding handmade replicas of AK-47s, adorned in traditional Shona style beading. “Ghosts” is on view at C.A.V.E. Gallery in Los Angeles until March 2, 2014.
Interview by Melissa Unger
Tell us about the very beginning, were you a creative child? Was there a particular experience that made you want to devote your life to a creative career?
I was creative but in South Arica in the 1960’s it was not encouraged or nurtured at school. I was dyslexic, I always had a really hard time reading or writing. Boys were expected to be good at math and science and to grow up to be engineers or lawyers. Boys were encouraged to peruse manly activities. I was terrible at sport, no athletic ability, absolutely no coordination. I was a creative child and it was my escape from this world. Boredom was a constant at school. Boredom in the classroom, boredom under a baking sun on the rugby field. Daydreaming was an escape. Art was an escape. Vandalism was an escape. Drugs were an escape when we could get them. The problem with dreaming or drugs or destruction is that ultimately they leave you feeling empty. The same feeling you get after playing videogames for eighteen hours straight. Hollow. They are a band-aid, a placebo at best. But making something leaves a lingering satisfaction, at least until the self-doubt sets in. So when I had a creative outlet, I was immersed and life was good.
You’ve directed some iconic music videos and feature films, but lately you have turned your attention to other art forms. What typically triggers your interest in a new project?
I just want to be engaged, constantly. I want creative projects. I need an outlet. Sometimes one project isn’t enough. Sometimes working six days a week on a movie isn’t enough. I need something to do on my day off that is a counterpoint to what my weekday is. Also making a film is a long process, from getting it set up, to shooting it, and then editing it to completion, so it can lack immediacy. You can also spend years working on a project and have nothing to show for it: a script is words unless you get financing to make those words into pictures.
As you get ready to explore new creative avenues do you ever experience fear? If so, do you have specific rituals, habits or methods that help you to find the courage to push past it and effectively undertake your next project?
For me there is no courage involved. My only fear in life is boredom. Boredom is my constant enemy, always lurking, always close at hand. Inspiration is the escape hatch from boredom, the rip-cord. I usually dive in without thinking too much. You start with something small and it grows, takes on a life of it’s own, mutates. I talked earlier about self-doubt. You make something, love the process, feel the afterglow of satisfaction, and then you want to tear it up and start again. Satisfaction is short lived. Doubt is eternal. Still for me this is an important part of the process. If you love something you will never make it better. Most times I never complete a project, I just work up to the deadline and then stop.
Your latest project Ghosts is astounding in both its political power and aesthetic beauty. We’re particularly fascinated by the creative process – you crafted 200 handmade beaded and wire wrapped guns; this is quite different from filmmaking, tell us a bit about your personal experience with this.
I worked with and collaborated with several people on the project. In Johannesburg there are street vendors who sell beaded animals and curios by the side of the road. These are mostly aimed at the tourist market but they are often finely made and very beautiful. It started with me asking some of these guys to make me a beaded AK 47. Just one. It looked amazing. I went back the next week and ordered six more and so it went. I would get colored crayons and draw out color schemes for the guns. We would build them in series of nine or twelve. One series was all African flags, SA, Zambia, Zimbabwe and so on. Another series where rainbows, one series was realistic, black gun barrels and wooden colored handles. We did stripes, flat colors, traditional designs and so on.
Then came bullets. First we made pure beaded bullets. Then I got shell casings from actual AK 47’s and we covered them in woven beads. At the end of the process there were close on 200 guns and thousands of rounds of ammo. We did a photo-shoot in downtown Johannesburg and the artisans who made the guns posed for the pictures. For me I really enjoyed spending time with the guys. Talking, learning their life stories, their real life experiences with AK 47’s. How they’d wound up at this place and time. It was interesting, heartbreaking, illuminating. Fake guns, real stories. Real lives, violence, crime and the art of survival. Stories of families ripped apart. Stories of survival.
I did meditate on the irony of producing weapons in Africa and exporting them to the West. What customs would say if they ever opened the container. Should I declare “AK 47 Replicas” or “Beaded Guns”? In the end I chickened out and listed the contents as “Beaded Ornaments”. True I suppose, but not brave. It took a whole day to wrap and load them into a container. The container was driven from Johannesburg to Durban and loaded onto a ship. I could track the ship from my computer as it sailed first to China where the container was put onto a second ship bound for the Port of LA.
At Seymour, we like to remind people about the importance of taking regular breaks from technology to relax their mind. How do you rest your mind?
To disconnect I love to body surf. Summer or Winter. Early morning, my wetsuit damp, the water bracingly cold. If a mist or morning marine layer has rolled in I can’t even see the shore. Grey horizons, water reflecting the sky, all shades of monotone. Just the swell of ocean.
A far off storm near the coast of NZ has sent a swell halfway around the world.
After a while I lose my sense of time, I only know the direction of the beach from the incoming waves. A giant set comes through the waves are so huge and intimidating I almost don’t dare to take one. Then I’m swimming and the wave crashes, propels me, like a bullet from a gun. I feel like I’ve tapped into some primal power, the shore is racing towards me, I feel vital, out of breath, nothing else matters.
Throughout the years you’ve always done things your way, staying true to your vision and honoring your passions without ‘selling out’ or giving in to the ‘masses’, I find that so inspiring. What advice do you have for people who are embarking on a creative journey?
I suppose everyone has his or her own journey. I learned early on that I only knew one way of doing things and that was my way. When I tried to do things any other way I failed. If I tried to work with compromise I didn’t wind up with some hybrid of my vision or their vision. It was nothing, just pulp. To fail doing your own thing is a tragedy, to fail doing someone else’s is an insult.
One word to describe Ralph Ziman today:
Published: February 18th, 2014