Crossing borders 018: Ralph Ziman


Do you believe in peace on earth?

Most of my entourage is a little bit older than I am and because of this, babies and marriage are subjects that are brought into a conversation way more often than they used to. Personally, I’m nowhere near ready to have a child… I’m not even sure I want one. For that child’s sake. In 1989, The Miracle was the 13th studio album released by British rock band, Queen. On its title track, Freddie Mercury would sing “the one thing we’re all waiting for, is peace on earth and an end to war/It’s a miracle we need/That time will come one day you’ll see when we can all be friends”…

But what do I know about war? I’m lucky enough to have never experienced it first hand, and even more fortunate to not have lost one of my brothers to the war in Irak and Afganistan. I’m aware of how favored my upbringing in the world was. Not everyone has had my luck. Almost three decades have gone by since Queen’s release of their fifth single off The Miracle. More than 70 years have passed since the end of WWII and still on the news, all I see is humans repeating the same mistakes and bad decisions of the past, humans killing each other over power, land, racism, name it. It sickens me.

Maybe that’s why I love art so much: it opens discussions, and even if the piece is charged with sadness or restlessness, an underlying beauty remains to ease the pain in some of us.

For this Crossing borders’ edition, I was fortunate enough to speak with well-known and recognized South African director, writer and artist Ralph Ziman about his birth country, street art, film making and how he translates his life experiences, skills and learnings into a statement on culture and nowadays world issues into art.

[Fresh Paint Gallery]: You moved out of South Africa at the age of 19, to avoid conscription into the SADF. Were you already inclined to art at the time?
[Ralph Ziman]: I’ve always painted, I’ve always drawn. When I was 13 or 14, I was very much into photography, which fascinated me. I loved it, and I did that. Then, I suppose I started working. My first job out of school [at the age of] 18, was working as a cameraman, so I got into film that way. At every point in my life, I’ve been doing some form of visual art and, you know, from time to time it tends to shift and I do other things, different things.



[F.P.G.]: Nowadays, you live in Los Angeles with your family. How close have you stayed with your roots?

[R.Z.]: I go back a lot. Some years, I’ll go back 3, 4 or 5 times, sometimes I’ll go back 2 or 3 times, and sometimes I’ll be there for a 6 or 9 months stretch. When I left South Africa, I thought I would never come back. I was eighteen; Apartheid was in full swing and the control it had over everything was absolute. Over the media, over radio, television, what could be shown, what magazines [could be read]… With a police state, in the early 80’s, we found ourselves embroiled in our war on the border. […] In South Africa, we were at the beginning of what was the civil war and they [authorities] were deploying the army into the townships which… none of it was anything I felt I could agree with. I couldn’t just do the military and tell my kids one day I fought on the side of Apartheid because I had to. So the options, they were very [limited]: it was leave and never go back, or stay and do the military. Or, perhaps a third option was to [be opposed to it] and spend maybe 6 to 8 years in a military prison, being abused and beaten. So, I boarded an airplane, and I left.


[F.P.G.]: Do you still have family there then?
[R.Z.]: I still have some family there; my parents are still there, I’ve got a brother there…. I still have some good friends from when I was a kid, and I’ve got a lot of friends I’ve made over the years, new friends. So you know, I connect with South Africa and people there. I love it; I love Johannesburg — the cultural aspects of it. I love that it has become this fascinating African city. There were places in Johannesburg when I was a kid -like Hillbrow- you’d go there, and it would be 95% white people… now you go there, and it’s 95% black people. A lot of places are still the same and familiar, but a lot of places have turned on their head. It is really interesting, and the other fascinating thing about Johannesburg now is, it’s not just South Africans; you meet Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Congolese… it’s become kind of this melting pot of Africa where you’ve got big numbers of people from every part of the continent. It is culturally just a fascinating place.



[F.P.G.]: Being born in Johannesburg, but having spent most of your life living in the USA, where do you stand between what you know, have seen and lived, and the media’s representation of the African continent?
[R.Z.]: I think the way Africa tends to be represented is when there’s a war, a conflict or Boko Haram, and then it makes headlines. The rest of it tends to get very under-covered, and I think it’s a pity in a way because a lot is going on in Africa. I wish [the media didn’t] only show the wars and the most sensational aspects of it. It’s a huge place. News coverage… I mean, sometimes I do wish they would be harsher on governments that are in power about issues of corruption and not living up to the expectations of the people who elected them and put them there. In South Africa, I feel like the money that the country had should have been spent on education primarily, and then on housing for poor people who at the end of Apartheid had nothing, and then on hospitals and people’s health, on having a system to look after people. I think instead, what happened is that huge amounts of money are being served for corruption. Corruption done through massive arms deals, for example. […] It’s always been like that, unfortunately, so now a country like South Africa has one of the world’s biggest gaps between rich and poor.


[F.P.G.]: What perspective on art or life have you gained by moving out of South Africa when you did?
[R.Z.]: I mean, I couldn’t stay [in South Africa] because of Apartheid, but I do think there’s something interesting when you leave a country. When you’re away for long periods of time and you come back, you look at everything with a pair of fresh eyes. You look at things that people don’t think are interesting because they see them every day of their lives. As a photographer or as a tourist, a visitor, a guest, a traveler or whatever it is, you’ll go to places and be fascinated by something that people [see] every day. You’ll look at the electric fences of everybody’s homes in Johannesburg, and you’ll go “wow”, but other people have become so accustomed to it… I think in some ways, going back there with a fresh mind and a fresh eye, it has allowed me to see and be inspired by things that might just be mundane if I lived there.



[F.P.G.]: At the time, your project “Ghosts” provoked heaps of discussion and media coverage. How satisfied are you with the impact it had? Do you still see that project having an impact today?
[R.Z.]: It’s something we want to keep going with. We did the first series in Johannesburg in 2013 […] and they’ve had a great impact, we’re still selling the prints – at least 3 or 4 a month. We managed to get a lot of attention from Huffington Post, BBC, The Guardian, CNN… A lot of people ran pieces on it. I do feel like people saw us and people took notice, and it’s something I want to carry on with, both in terms of raising awareness and donating money to charities that deal with gun violence and issues like that. It’s a project that has a life to it.


[F.P.G.]: Nonetheless, that project gave half a dozen Zimbabwean craftsmen 6 months of full-time work. What kind of response did you get from them? Is this something you try to do if possible? Implicate local artists in your projects?
[R.Z.]: It’s been great, because we have a really good relationship and I’ve continued to work with them through the years and I’m even working with them now on new projects. They’re just really great guys. It’s been nice hanging, talking, being with them, you know. The guys I work with, they’re five very different guys in terms of their personalities and their characters, but really, they’re all fascinating people. So yes, it’s an ongoing thing and we want to build it to the point where it’s giving them a full time job working on various projects, so that they can have a full time income and not be at the mercy of how many tourists come this year.


[F.P.G.]: With corruption and heavy police presence, to what extent is street art, graffiti or wheat pasting accepted? Was it hard for the Resistance project to see the day in terms of authorizations and such?
[R.Z.]: Well, It’s hard in Cape Town. We just put a new one up in Johannesburg last month, when I was over there. I collaborated with Jesse Hazelip, an artist I really admire. In Johannesburg, you can pretty much do anything you want. You could start putting a mural up in broad daylight and you would probably not get into any trouble for it. In Cape Town, in order to get anything done at all, you need the city to sign off. You need permission from the local municipality. […] It turned out okay and we had the city behind us and they were very in favor of what we are doing.



[F.P.G.]: What’s the next step on that project?
[R.Z.]: We want to take it and put one in every city in the world. So far we’ve got one in Johannesburg, one in Cape Town, one in the townships around Cape Town, one in Venice, one in downtown L.A., one in South Central L.A. We just want to keep going and see if we can put these up all around the world.


[F.P.G.]: What’s your creative process like? Does your strong and successful background in film making has an effect on the way you create and present art?
[R.Z.]: I suppose the thing about film making is that it’s horrible in terms of how hard it is to make one: how much politics are involved, how much money you need to raise… how much of your life gets spent doing non-creative things. Trying to get a budget, figure out how to do it in the time that you have and the money that you have.

I suppose it’s probably subconscious things you learn, that you apply. Then, I think there’s probably a lot of new skills you have to learn, which I kind of love doing. I love not really being able to do what I think I should be able to do. Figuring it out as I go along. There’s something to be said about not being too comfortable in what you do or too sure of yourself. Street art is an amazing way of communicating; it’s not advertising, it’s not a billboard. But it gets people to react.



[F.P.G.]: Is there a particular medium you prefer using and why? What kind of freedom does it provide you?
[R.Z.]: I just like when you can bring aspects of all of them together. When you can take what you know about photography or filming and use it to help you make a mural. I think nowadays there’s a lot of mediums being brought together by everybody, and I like that.


[F.P.G.]: Anything to be released in a nearby future?
[R.Z.]: Probably in about a year or so! It should be really fun!


© All photos courtesy of Ralph Ziman.

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Ralph Ziman was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1963. 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 six features as a writer/director/producer including Hearts and Minds, the first independent South African feature film to be completed after apartheid. His vivid public art never ceases to raise awareness and open discussions. Heavy issues are put in the forefront: global arms trade, trophy hunting, resistance, a cycle of war, impoverishment and more, turning his art into a statement on culture. Currently based out in L.A. with his family, he focuses on his art practice, and flies back to his hometown a few times a year.