Samson Kambalu is an artist who works in a variety of mediums including site-specific installation, video, performance and literature. He shares much of this online on websites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. The processes and inspirations of these works are also very public, and can be found commonly on his website. He has previously studied at the University of Malawi, Nottingham Trent University and the Chelsea College of Art.
Much of his inspiration comes from his home country in Africa, and more specifically, the gift-giving society of Malawi. There has been a noticeable difference, however, in the way that the gift giving in society now runs. Nowadays, charities go into Africa and give the African people, without letting the African people return the favour. This is “leading to resentfulness not gratefulness which can quickly lead to cynicism.”
Often in festivals, the people of Malawi would wear masks. This is to get people to start giving indifferently and to start taking indifferently too. This also ensures that no one feels in debt or obliged when wearing the masks, and when these masks are left, the generosity is also left with them.
To give through play can be a way of giving without any debt. Now, these masks live in museums, when before they would be at the height of infrastructure in society.
Situationism is another inspiration for Kambalu, which is defined as ‘the theory that human behaviour is determined by surrounding circumstances rather than by personal qualities’ and it is also ‘a revolutionary political theory which regards modern industrial society as being inevitably oppressive and exploitative’. This movement began with the Situationist International and the May 1968 student and worker revolts in France.
The protestant tradition of inquiry, criticism and dissent is also a common inspiration found throughout his work including that of ‘Ghost Dance’, red Barn Farm (Two Chairs)’ and ‘Exercise & Exorcise’.
Another inspiration of Samson Kambalu is the cinema. In his TED Talk, he talks about how in Africa, they had to entertain themselves as everything was second hand in Africa. This meant that things always broke down in the Nyau cinemas and was always linear. This is the aesthetic of the broken down film.
The films that Kambalu also makes and shows are playful works and installations in which play is welcomed. These works are often spontaneous including ‘pickpocket’- a film in London, where he and another gentleman were wearing the same coat and Kambalu followed him down the road, imitating him. This was shown, along with many other videos, in Detail Is All, Germany, 2016, Liverpool Biennial, Liverpool, 2016
In August 2013, he published the rules that he uses to create his Nyau cinema inspired films. From these rules, he created a series of spontaneous site-specific performances ‘Psychogeographical Nyau Cinema’ (2013), seen in Frieze Film 2016, Day and Night, London.
Samson Kambalu 26.8.13
Nyau cinema approaches film as a sovereign activity. Making film becomes a way of escaping the limitations and conventions of everyday life, where the self is playfully re-conceived as part a larger scheme of things. Nyau is a Chewa word for ‘excess’.
Nyau Cinema: The Rules
1. Nyau film must be conceived as a clip no longer than a minute.
2. Performance should be spontaneous and site/specific to found architecture, landscape, or object.
3. There must always be a conversation between performance and the medium of film.
5. Costume must be from everyday life.
6. Acting must be subtle but otherworldly, transgressive, and playful.
7. Editing must be limited to the aesthetics of primitive film and silent cinema.
8. Audio must be used sparingly, otherwise it must be performed live at film screenings.
9. Screening of a Nyau film must be in specially designed cinema booths or improvised cinema installations that compliment the spirit of the film.
10. Nyau cinema must encourage active participation from audience.
The series of films that transpired from these rules can be found below:
The films that are shown are often projected onto gallery walls, and in ‘Ghost dance’, they were projected from stacked Kinetescopic plinths that were each engraved with different US postal codes ‘to invoke unstable western systems for dividing and allocating land’. Kambalu often explains his works once they have been released and has explained before that the ‘seemingly random encounters recorded in his films as a way of ‘extracting poetry out of nothing – a continued exploration of how we might find meaning in what appears to be meaningless.’
Below is The culture of gift-giving in Malawi Ted Talk by Samson Kambalu in which he talks more about these inspirations:
Novels are a medium that Samson Kambalu has experimented with in the past with his first novel released in 2008 – The Jive Talker: Or, How to get a British Passport. This as a portrait of the artist growing up in Africa, published by Jonathan Cape and Simon and Schuster and as awarded Winner of the National Book Token ‘Global Reads’ Prize (2010). This book can be found on the Amazon website. This book since then has been translated into German and has been the subject to several performative reading tours which combine his art and literature.
Kambalu’s most talked about sculpture and installation was his 200 work ‘Holy Ball’. This work is footballs wrapped in bible pages, and people are invited to ‘exercise or exorcise’ with them at local and international venues including the Venice Biennale. Since this exhibition, Kambalu has evoked a philosophy of life and art based on play and critical transgression. Through his latest works he uses different mediums such as literature and performance in order to playfully employ excess, transgression, humour and wit. This is to test the boundaries of received ideas regarding history, art, identity, religion and individual freedom, while keeping all his original inspirations. Through the most recent works that evoke play, Kambalu wants the mix of interpretations; for some to find the action wrong, some to watch, some to go right ahead and some to encourage. These works are open to this interpretation, however this art is about creating relations and connecting people who otherwise wouldn’t be connected.
Other site-specific performances include the films Early Film (2013) and The Last Man in Paris (2013). These took public places as their arena. ‘With Duchampian mischief, Kambalu’s brief ‘rants’ – short, Chaplin-eqsue gestural sequences – showed the artist acting up in public, part of a wider reserach inquiry into ranting and dandyism as styles that enact a form of dissent.’ – Dak’Art 2014
‘Art comes from the gift economy, Nowadays everything is commercialised. When you do something now, you have to explain what you are doing in terms of its practicality. Art is one area where it’s not very clear what you get out of it; it’s almost intangible. What you get from art can’t be calculated and it makes it a special profession because most professions now are utilitarian. Therefore art is a single place in contemporary society where its significance lies elsewhere.’ – griotmag
United in Play.