‘Nyasaland Analysand’: The tangling of Samson Kambalu
Artist weaves his Malawian roots into films, installations, paintings and drawings now on show
Born in 1975, Malawian artist Samson Kambalu wears many hats – films, installations, paintings and drawings, and he has also written two novels, has a PhD in Fine Arts and ethnomusicology, and lectures at Oxford University.
Kambalu is a short, well-dressed and impishly smiling man who believes in the power of play, which has “helped me in my travels to make sense of the places I go to. If I’m playing then I can fit anywhere and I feel that it helps to give me a sense of place.”
He is known for his short films based on a set of self-imposed rules that echo the Nyau cinema of his homeland. Scenes from different films are spliced together to create action-packed entertainments that are not necessarily the products advertised on walls in places like Blantyre. Kambalu’s new show at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg combines several aspects of his practice.
Several of the artist’s short films are on view, presented with their wires and apparatus visible in homage to Kambalu’s experience of watching films in Malawi in the 1970s.
“When you’re sitting there, there’ll be someone trying to sell popcorn, someone talking to their neighbour, someone smoking, drinking, walking in and out because that is the beauty of the cinema I grew up with – we would watch it in markets and there would be activity and people would make comments and walk in and out. So for me it’s a question of how to recreate that experience in our experience of modern cinema.”
Kambula has made the short films in cities around the world, using locals as cinematographers and starring in them himself. In the films he is often dressed in dandyish clothes inspired by the traditions of his homeland, in which members of the Kings Africa Rifles regiment, who fought in both world wars, would often create new syncretic traditions upon returning home – incorporating elements of European culture with the rituals of Malawi.
A series of cutouts of archive photographs of members of these regiments, enclosed in white wooden cages, take up much of the floor space in the main part of the gallery. For Kambula they represent not only a visual marker of cultural exchange but also “a coming to terms with modernity and way of coping with a certain displacement – the men who left to work on the mines or go to war would come back different,” he says.
The anagrammatic title of the exhibition references not only Malawi’s colonial past but also the psychological affects of Kambula’s generation of African artists – who must deal with the pressures of modernity and the difference in attitudes towards traditional, agrarian societies and the product-delivering, work-consumed ethos of capitalism.
Kambula feels that his practice “certainly helps me to cope with the pressures of modernity and separation. Some of us come from communal societies and now we have to embrace modern individualism and with that comes alienation. But art can help with recovering some of that lost sense of community and connection.”
• Nyasaland Analysand is at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg until April 13.