Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa 16 Mar 2019 - 13 Apr 2019
Samson Kambalu, Untitled (Bubble Gum Flag), 2018, Courtesy of the artist and the Goodman Gallery
Nyasaland: Former British Protectorate established in 1907 and later renamed Malawi when the country gained independence from Britain on 6 July 1964
Analysand: A person undergoing psychotherapy
The anagrammed title of Samson Kambalu’s second solo exhibition with Goodman Gallery is reflective of the work in both content and form. Drawing on his Malawian upbringing, Kambalu references the syncretic cultures he grew up around to produce work that celebrates and interrogates this practice of integrating Western influences into local traditions and customs.
Kambalu describes the formation of syncretic culture as an act of ‘détournement’ – similar to the Situationist strategy of revaluation. In this exhibition Kambalu employs the same process, epitomised by his ‘Bubble Gum Flags’. The work pays homage to a childhood brand of gum, ‘Dandy Bubble Gum’, which contained cards bearing flags of various countries in its wrapper. Kambalu and his friends would collect the gum, chew it and shuffle the flags on the playground; a form of unintentional abstraction the artist has since come to use for his series of colourful geometric prints and constructions.
The presence of flags further informs Nyasaland Analysand through reference to the Malawian culture of the Beni, Mganda and Malipenga dances. This tradition sees individuals donning uniforms worn by the “Keyala” or King’s African Rifles (KAR), an East-African branch of the British army who served in both World Wars, to create a form of masquerade that incorporates flags and other Western symbols of nationalism. A reference to these dances can be found in cardboard-cutouts of Beni and Mganda soldiers who stand at attention around the exhibition beside their packaging.
For Kambalu these dances and other forms of syncretic culture reflect a type of hysteria. “I think Africans subjected to Western culture and then bewildered by it turn their experiences into a dance as a means of coping with it,” says Kambalu. Dance and other forms of play then become a form of self-therapy and means for warding off alienation.
“Hysteria can be a sign of health, your soul is still stirring, and it has the potential of turning whatever you’re experiencing into art. I like this kind of psychoanalysis, it allows for affirmation. In Malawi, if you’re sick you don’t go to a witchdoctor you go to a herbalist. You go to the witchdoctor to be told a story for your suffering.”
Critical to Kambalu’s exploration of syncretic culture is through its sense of time. The African dandy is another common character found in post-colonial societies, appearing in typically Western clothes. Kambalu adopts this persona in what he calls ‘Nyau Cinema’, a series of brief filmed vignettes inspired by the psychogeography and histories of various places including Europe and America. The repetitive and diagrammatic nature of the Nyau films lend the exhibition its rhythms.
“Western time is teleological, it has a beginning and an end. African and Chewa time is more an eternal immanence,” says Kambalu. “Looks can be deceptive. What I like about syncretic cultures is that they look Western and yet the heart of it is totally alien. I think that’s very much like me.”
Samson Kambalu is an artist and writer working in a variety of media, including site-specific installation, video, performance and literature. His work is autobiographical and approaches art as an arena for critical thought and sovereign activities. Born in Malawi Kambalu’s work fuses aspects of the Nyau gift-giving culture of the Chewa, the anti-reification theories of the Situationist movement and the Protestant tradition of inquiry, criticism and dissent. He has been featured in major exhibitions and projects worldwide, including the Dakar Biennale (2014, 2016), Tokyo International Art Festival (2009) and the Liverpool Biennial (2004, 2016). He was included in All the World’s Futures, Venice Biennale 2015, curated by Okwui Enwezor. Samson Kambalu studied at the University of Malawi (BA Fine Art and Ethnomusicology); Nottingham Trent University (MA Fine Art) and Chelsea College of Art and Design (PhD Fine Art). Kambalu, who began his academic career at the University of Malawi, has won research fellowships with Yale University and the Smithsonian Institution, and is an associate professor of Fine Art at Ruskin School of Art, and a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford University
The exhibition opens at 17H00 on Saturday 16 March.
In addition Kambalu will be giving his lecture performance ‘The Witchdoctors’ Guide to Psychoanalysis‘ at the WITS School of Arts, 7th Floor, on Thursday 14 March at 6pm.