“I think about life as a creative project.” This is how UK-based Malawian artist Samson Kambalu (b. 1975) describes his approach both to art and life. He is influenced by Situationism, 19th and 20th Century Western philosophical thought, silent film, and by spiritual rituals practiced in South-East Africa. Kambalu embraces the subversive potential of non-productive time, the gift economy and the notion of playing.
He is best known for his Nyau Cinema, an ongoing series of short films that are made in various locations around the world where the artist explores new places with his camera, using his own body as the subject of his playful, spontaneous and site-specific performative actions.
Kambalu’s films are often based on Nyau Culture, a secret society of the Chewa tribe in Malawi, which is especially known for its ritual mask performances. Influenced by the experience of watching films as a child in Malawi, his films have the look of found footage from early cinema and have been described as ‘cinematic fragments that blend slapstick and spiritual ritual’.
Kambalu’s multi-media exhibition Postcards from the Last Century at PEER presents ten new films, shot during the artist’s recent research trip to Germany. First the 19th Century Philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Hut in Todtnauberg in the Black Forest, then to Bayreuth in Bavaria, the home of the Wagnerian opera. Some of the films are often just a few seconds long, perhaps showing Kambalu enacting a gesture or action in front of a historical monument in a Bayreuth park.
Alongside the films, bright, colourful textiles hang from the ceiling and walls. They are from the Bubble Gum Flag series (2019) which derives from his childhood memory of collecting bubble gum cards of the flags of the world. These national and sovereign identities are manipulated and dissected using smartphone technology to create images that adopt the ‘look’ of geometric Western abstract painting, but also resonate with the vibrant colours and bold patterning of African Kente cloth. For example, a flag with the title The Country as a Failed Idea (2019) seems to question the idea of nation states.
More than life-size vinyl prints of a group of Colonial African soldiers called Ecce Homo (2020) salute the viewer and passers-by from the large window front of the gallery. Cardboard cut-outs of more soldiers are dotted around the two exhibition spaces. They are reproductions of archival photographs that Kambalu found in the colonial archives of Oxford’s Weston Library and depict members of the King’s African Rifles, who served Britain in both World Wars.
Kambalu explained that these soldiers brought back Western dandy clothes and army uniforms that were incorporated into the traditional dances of their African homeland. Thus, as Kambalu states, ‘the soldiers can be seen as the origins of the African dandy and Malawian highly politicised syncretic cultures such as Beni, Malipenga and Mganda that have inspired my filmmaking and the works’.
Freestanding and wall mounted postcard racks showcase postcards that relate to the films and flags in the exhibition. The postcards are available to buy as a limited-edition postcard collections to support the overall programme of PEER.
Overall, Kambalu’s innovative and at times mischievous films, reconfiguring elements of multiple cultural traditions, contribute to a radical review of art and its histories beyond nation states or region-specific narratives.
There is a carefully considered lightness and playfulness to Kambalu’s work – whether it be in his Nyau Cinema series, the flags, or his cardboard soldiers. The use of his own body as the source and subject of his performative actions might also point to Kambalu’s interest in the formation of his own identity as a post-colonial citizen of the world, reflecting how the artist, who moved from Malawi to the UK in 2001, inscribes himself into the new spaces he inhabits and encounters in Europe.
As he sees it, “Before I started making the films I was always a stranger in these cities because I would go to museums and learn about other people’s culture but when I started making films I realised everywhere I go becomes my own because I have made something out of it and there has been an exchange between me and the city itself.”
Postcards from the Last Century is a powerful tool to radically rethink the world as a syncretism of different religions, cultures and philosophies, emphasising the flow and exchange of people and ideas, movements and contacts – forced or voluntary. It is a world view that is becoming highly important in our present time that is increasingly shaped by narratives of cultural differences and divisions.
Samson Kambalu will be in conversation with Emma Ridgway, Chief Curator at Modern Art Oxford, at PEER on Thursday 5 March 2020.
PEER, 97–99 Hoxton Street, London N1 6QL. Open Wednesday-Saturday 12.00-18.00. Exhibition continues until 28 March 2020. www.peeruk.org