In his playful, multi-media practice, Kambalu fuses aspects of Nyau culture, a secret society of the Chewa in Malawi known for their ritual mask performances, with the anarchic and anti-material practices of the Situationists and the aesthetic legacy of early and expressionist film. His work is often autobiographical and shaped by his research on emancipatory movements and the multiple and merging belief systems that he encountered during his youth in Malawi.
Mdondo, the titular sculpture, was created especially for the exhibition in collaborative effort with the gallery team and is inspired by the syncretic and subversive mask figures of the Chewa. The sculpture fuses notions of the bull as an emblem of strength with aspects of a train and thus plays with the experience and horrors of modernity and colonialism in his country of origin. Malawian migrant workers were forced to travel by train to Johannesburg and Kimberley to work the mines there.
This central figure of the bull is surrounded by a colorful variety of multi-national flags using a variety of media. Kambalu creates the models for these printed, sewn, and painted flags with the help of an app, in which he dissects and rearranges the original flag motifs. The result is a geometric pattern that recalls the visual language of Western abstract painting or Kuba fabrics.
Kambalu uses deconstruction and montage in a similar manner in Nyau Cinema, a series of videos he has been making since 2012. In these short films, Kambalu appears as an “Everyman” figure in often absurd and amusing situations in public space. They show a sometimes pleasurable and respectless struggle with the specific locations and their history and suspend space and time in a non-linear continuous loop. They link to childhood memories of the rapid live cuts of Malawian projectionists, who edited together highlights from various action films as a reaction to torn film strips or in response to the demand of the lively audience.
The sculpture Antelope pays homage to the pan-Africanist and anti-colonial Malawian rebel John Chilembwe. It is based on the last photograph of the U.S.-trained preacher and his friend, the English missionary John Chorley. It shows the two men standing next to one another, both wearing a hat, and thus in 1915 already represented an illegal provocation. Black men were required to remove their hats in humility in the presence of white men.
Samson Kambalu’s Nyau aesthetic is embedded in a culture of gift-economy of giving and the creative squandering of time. It approaches art in a playful and respectless way as an arena for critical thought and independent action. It thus creates a space for various perspectives on history and worldviews in which art can be seen as an integral part of human action.
at Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin
until October 29, 2022