Earlier this week, South African filmmaker and artist Ralph Ziman had the unique pleasure of watching his 2016 piece “SPOEK 1,” a reclaimed military vehicle, transported through the streets of New York and Brooklyn on the back of a flatbed truck. It was bound for installation at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair New York (running from May 4 through 6 at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn)—a long way from its roots and a far cry from its role in combat.
Designed and made in Africa for warfare in the late 1970s, these armored vehicles, known as Casspirs, were extensively used as weapons of terror and oppression in apartheid-era South Africa, and later, by American troops in Baghdad during the Iraq War. Zigman’s rig, however, disrupts that violent legacy. “I wanted to take what was the ultimate symbol of apartheid,” he says, “and turn it into something that is African and beautiful.”
For “SPOEK 1,” the artist and his team restored a Casspir, before blanketing its surfaces with intricate, dazzling panels of beadwork. “It was the opposite of camouflage,” says Ziman. Woven by artisans from Zimbabwe and the Mpumalanga province in South Africa, these traditional patterns offer stark contrast to the vehicle’s original army-green body and in turn, its intended purpose. Their vibrancy channels the optimism and spirit of a country emerging out of systemic abuse—Ziman calls it “Africanness” and also, “hope.”
Unveiled for the first time in America, the work further echoes this country’s history of police brutality and violence (the Casspirs purchased by the U.S. during the war were later given to American police forces). Reflecting upon Black Lives Matter protests and “heavily armed mostly white policemen dressed in level-three armored vests,” Ziman reckons, “it looks like apartheid-era policing.” Telling the story of the Casspir is crucial to him, if only to underscore the growing militarization of policing and the crippling effects of division.
Just as he drove his Casspir to various South African provinces from Soweto to Cape Town last year, Ziman plans to tour his piece across America. “I really want to talk about it and I want people to understand what the vehicle is. This,” he says, referring to its debut at this weekend’s fair, “is very much the first stop.”
Up top, watch an exclusive video of “SPOEK 1” rumbling into Brooklyn, and above, the intricate beading process.
Video: Courtesy Ralph Ziman.