An AK-47 Built From Beads

South African artist Ralph Ziman commissioned a team of Johannesburg street vendors to create eye-popping machine guns from seed beads, in protest of the gun violence that plagues Africa.

Out of the estimated 500 million small arms and light weapons in circulation worldwide, 100 million are found in Africa. “In Africa, everyone’s had experiences with guns–either having them, or having them pointed at you,” South African artist and filmmaker Ralph Ziman tells Co.Design. “We’ve all had that experience at some point.”


While living in Johannesburg last year, Ziman was friendly with a group of street vendors, most of them refugees from Zimbabwe, who made knickknacks and little animals using traditional beading techniques and sold them to tourists. “Some of their handicraft was really amazing,” Ziman tells Co.Design. “About a year ago, I asked them to build me an AK-47 from beads.”

They liked the idea. Soon enough, they’d built three guns, then five, and then 200, all from tiny, vibrant seed beads, some in the colors of various African flags, others in black with gold accents. They got real AK-47 bullet shells and wrapped them with beaded wire. Eventually, Ziman took the craftsmen to the intensely crime-ridden downtown Johannesburg and photographed them toting these fantasy weapons, masked and wearing elaborate costumes–a mix of camouflage military gear and traditional West African ritual wear. “I was struck by how, when put a gun in someone’s hand, they just know how to pose,” Ziman says. “They take a stance, like a Joseph Kony kind of a stance.”

Now, these guns, bullets, and photographs will be displayed at the C.A.V.E. Gallery in Los Angeles, and all proceeds will go to Human Rights Watch, which campaigns against the arms trade. By taking the fascination with guns’ danger and power to bizarre extremes, Ziman offers a dark commentary on the fetishizing and aestheticizing of guns in contemporary media. “You get to thinking, where do all these guns come from?” Ziman says. “How is it that in these third world countries that are struggling to put people through school, there’s never any shortage of money to buy guns?” After he’d made the first dozen or so weapons, he was struck by the idea to manufacture beautiful and nonlethal weapons and then just ship them back to the west, where most of the real guns come from.

Ghosts will be on view at the C.A.V.E. Gallery in Los Angeles until March 2.


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.