First came Ken Kesey’s psychedelic school bus “Furthur,” which rolled into San Francisco in Day-Glo colors to herald the 1960s. Now comes Ralph Ziman’s “Spoek 1,” an armor-plated South African police vehicle that also looks to have been painted in Day-Glo — except it’s not. Up close all those colors are formed by tiny glass beads attached by African tribal textile workers.
The work of these Zulu, Shona and Ndebele artisans from the countryside qualify “Spoek 1” as the centerpiece for the San Francisco Tribal & Textile Art Show, a three-day exhibition that runs Friday to Sunday, Feb. 21 to 23, in the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. This will be the Northern California debut for the 13-ton artwork, which is expected to arrive by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge around noon before touring Marina Boulevard to Fort Mason, where it will take a few victory laps around the parking lot.
It should be a spectacle because every inch of “Spoek 1,” inside and out, is beaded — 70 million beads in total. When it rolls, the hubcaps are like kaleidoscopes and the gun turret is hypnotic as it catches sunlight.
“It takes something that is ugly and reviled and a symbol of oppression and turns it into something beautiful and mesmerizing,” says its creator and driver-in-training Ziman, who splits his time between studios in his native Johannesburg and Los Angeles.
Growing up during apartheid, Ziman saw this class of vehicle, called a Casspir. They were designed for the South African police to carry 17 armed personnel, “as a rolling fortress,” he explains. The Casspir, which he described as “a weapon built solely to oppress black people,” was introduced in the 1970s and used until Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994. Mandela had them decommissioned and they were put in fields and left to rust, Ziman says.
By then, he had had left Johannesburg and become a music video director in London and Los Angeles. He veered into street art and murals, then got the idea “to reverse the arms trade” by taking Russian-made AK-47 rifles and turning them into beaded sculptures.
This led to his own arms race.