This Vibrantly Decorated South African Military Vehicle Is Guarding the Entrance to PULSE Miami Beach. Here’s the Story Behind It

Ralph Ziman's work is covered with some 70 million beads.

Ralph Ziman, SPOEK 1. Photo courtesy of Rendon Gallery, Los Angeles.

During a Miami Art Week somewhat devoid of hard-hitting political work, Ralph Ziman’s massive sculpture SPOEK 1 stands out, and not just because it’s a massive armored vehicle covered in colorful, glittering beadwork. The piece, greeting visitors to PULSE Art Fair Miami Beach, is a fully functional 1981 police Casspir, produced by South Africa for crowd control purposes during apartheid. It stands as a bold reminder of the international history of state violence and government oppression.

“The Casspir was apartheid’s greatest invention. It was built to sustain bomb explosions and was designed to suppress urban populations,” Ziman told Artnet News.

A white South African artist, Ziman enlisted a team of some 100 Zimbabwean and South African artisans to create the traditional beadwork patterning that transforms the Casspir from a symbol of fear into something bold and beautiful. (Ziman learned to bead along the way, but readily admits his skills still pale into comparison to those of his team, ten of whom now work for him full time.)

Before bringing the work to the US, the artist drove the project around South Africa, allowing the local people to engage with the transformed vehicle, suddenly sapped of its power to inspire fear. Along the way, he staged photographs of soldiers, decked out in beaded uniforms and equally embellished weapons.

Ralph Ziman with his piece <em>SPOEK 1</em> at PULSE Miami Beach with Rendon Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Ralph Ziman with his piece SPOEK 1 at PULSE Miami Beach with Rendon Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

At PULSE, those photos are on offer, along with the beaded AK47s and other related works, from Los Angeles’s Rendon Gallery. “The idea,” said Ziman, “was to make non-lethal weapons in South Africa that were beautiful and colorful to counter the weapons being made in the rest of the world and sold to Africa.”

(As a funny sidenote, Ziman actually had to be certified as an arms dealer to import it.)

SPOEK 1, the colorful vehicle parked at the entrance of the fair, is also for sale. The price is negotiable, depending on the client, according to the artist. Essentially, the presentation at the fair is a smaller version of “Ralph Ziman: The Casspir Project,” which was on view at the gallery during Frieze LA. You may also have spotted SPOEK 1 at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in New York in 2018.

Ralph Ziman, "The Casspir Project." Photo courtesy of Rendon Gallery, Los Angeles.

Ralph Ziman, “The Casspir Project.” Photo courtesy of Rendon Gallery, Los Angeles.

When apartheid ended in 1994, the Casspirs disappeared off the streets of South Africa. But they’ve since resurfaced around the world—many were sold to the US during the Iraq War, and then donated to police forces around the country.

“It’s the only vehicle designed in Africa that’s been exported to the rest of the world, so we wanted to Africanize and own it,” Ziman said. He says he was inspired to create SPOEK 1 when he saw news footage of US police force using Casspirs during the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ralph Ziman, SPOEK 1. Photo courtesy of Rendon Gallery, Los Angeles.

Ralph Ziman, SPOEK 1. Photo courtesy of Rendon Gallery, Los Angeles.

“The whole world has militarized their police force,” Ziman added. “I think once you put police on top of this [Casspir] with automatic weapons in a place like Ferguson, they start seeing the other side as the enemy.”

PULSE Art Fair Miami Beach is on view at Indian Beach Park, 4601 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida, December 5–8, 2019.

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