Samson Kambalu: New Liberia

A powerful installation centred on Malawi-born artist's search for a more enchanted world beyond the limitations of everyday life.
For his largest solo exhibition, Samson Kambalu (b. 1975 Chiradzulu, Malawi, lives and works Oxford, UK) creates a powerful installation centred on his search for a more enchanted world beyond the limitations of everyday life. Poetically articulated with colour, humour and intelligence, Kambalu combines video, images and texts for a timely exploration of sovereignty and resistance in the long interplay between Malawi, the UK and US.

June 10, 2021
Colonialism: the Elephant in the Room

I’ve been imagining the planning meeting at MAO to discuss the first big exhibition when the world reopened this year…

SERIOUS CURATOR: After the political events of this year, and particularly the debate around statues, returning stolen artefacts and so on, I think we’re looking for an artist who can talk with genuine authority about the legacy of Britain’s Colonial past.
FRIVOLOUS CURATOR: But they’ve got to be funny too!
SC: And it had better be someone with real international presence and serious accolades
FC: But they need to be local if no-one can travel!
SC: I’m thinking someone who can reflect on volunteering and donating, and the gift of time so many people have been granted this year, with a new lens, as it were…
FC: And has a totally new take on Masks!

(If you think I am jesting inappropriately, I’m just overcompensating after finding it brought tears to my eyes to walk up those familiar gallery steps, the vast bright space opening out above.)

Kambalu was born in Malawi about ten years after it gained independence from British rule, and is now resident in Oxford and a fellow of Magdalen College. This journey gives him a new perspective on our hallowed university city. You get a pretty good idea of that from his arresting figures – a pair of giant elephants dominating the larger gallery space. They’re not unfriendly though their tusks are sharp and gleaming. These are Nyau masks, but for the secret society of Chewa people in Malawi ‘mask’ signifies a costume made from cut up material, a little like the most notable May Morning outfits. And what materials are these elephant chiefs made from? A clue comes when the artist himself holds up the sleeves of his subfusc gown, one significantly shorter than the other…

The elephants are welcoming us into the state of New Liberia, a state in transition but founded on freedom. Around the walls are flags, almost recognisable, but these do not belong to real nations. Divorced from a literal meaning you notice the weird contrast of natural boundaries with manmade ones, wiggly coastlines vs politician’s rulers to divide up a continent, how arbitrary nations are. Isn’t it fortunate that in here we’re invited to be part of this brave new freedom together?

The smaller gallery space has become the dark interior of ‘Nyau Cinema’, showing on endless loop Kambalu’s short films, made to imitate the impromptu re-editing of films by Malawi’s projectionists, when films hiccupped or the reels got switched. Using the most basic trickery (films run backwards, stop-start editing) Kambalu takes on the mantle of Chaplin, walking through walls, confusing tourists, beating a bush into life and in one agonising film, never quite reaching his destination!

These spaces bookend more serious reflection on John Chilembwe, a hero of the Malawian independence movement, and the outrageous British rule. A discussion about hats is one on level deeply silly (I’m ashamed to say it reminded me of the children’s book ‘I Want My Hat Back’, perhaps for its sinister undercurrent), and completely tragic. A black man could at the time of Chilembwe be violently punished for not removing his hat when a white man was nearby. A court case (which visitors are invited to act out) was brought, to ask why white men had started selling hats to black men at all, if they didn’t want them to wear them. It should be an absurdist plot in an NF Simpson play; instead it was a symptom of the absurdity of injustice. Kambalu is shortlisted for the Fourth Plinth, and his proposed sculpture is also on show as part of the exhibition (and yes, his subject does wear a hat).

Samson Kambalu is “profoundly playful” to borrow from MAO’s programme notes, and I think this in an understatement. If you have some spare hours, you can watch video footage from a trial, where he is being sued by Gianfranco Sanguinetti, after photographing the latter’s art archive and reproducing it in the form of a book, Sanguinetti Theses. Kambalu has turned the tiny room off the middle gallery into a prison cell, Sanguinetti’s of course, not Kambalu’s, also containing the controversial Theses. Sanguinetti was part of the Situationist art movement, which protested against property law, copyright and art ownership, and Kambalu’s successful defence (in a real court of law) was that he was merely forcing Sanguinetti to live by the Situationist rules he himself had proposed. That’s not just playful, it’s provocative, gleeful mischief-making. His students must love him.

You have until September to enjoy this exhibition, poking fun at life, art, and that most serious idea of all: freedom.

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