"PRINT | Samson Kambalu at Modern Art Oxford”

November 2021 Issue

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Samson Kambalu, Don, 2014, digital video, black-and-white, silent, 52 seconds.

Samson Kambalu: New Liberia

The colonial government of the early-twentieth-century British protectorate of Nyasaland (today’s Republic of Malawi) exerted control over the bodies of Black citizens in ways that were both brutal and mundane—Africans who did not remove their hats or shoes in the presence of a European, for example, were subject to punishment. The Reverend John Chilembwe took particular issue with such policing of clothing and gestures, and in 1915 he led an uprising against plantation owners. Samson Kambalu’s exhibition “New Liberia” smartly laid bare the absurdity—and the utter seriousness—of such rules and their enforcement. Recalling Chilembwe’s plea for a “second Liberia,” an African nation created according to ideals of self-governance, the exhibition mixed Conceptual art, liberation politics, and Southeastern African masquerade to explore the concept of “social freedom.”

At the center of one gallery, viewers could stand at either of two podiums. There, they were implicitly invited to reenact the legal proceeding wherein the etiquette of hat wearing in Malawi was formally addressed, following Chilembwe’s uprising. Titled Nyasaland Rising Commission of Inquiry, the “live multi-media installation” was dated 1915 and presented an open book containing a real courtroom transcript, which could be used as a script. As if participating in a work of absurdist theater, the viewer as court witness testified to the introduction of hats by Europeans to Africa, the conditions of their sale to everyday Malawians, and their necessity as a function of one’s skin color or severity of hair loss.

Surrounding this installation were ten short projected films from the series “Nyau Cinema,” 2012–, named after the secret society of the Chewa people of present-day Malawi, which show Kambalu performing simple “liberatory” actions in public spaces. Each under a minute in duration, the films raise questions surrounding individual autonomy, the hypervisibility of the artist’s body, the social rules that dictate our movements through space, and the ease with which others can be misperceived. In Don, 2014, for instance, the artist exits an arched facade and slowly approaches the camera. Other pedestrians appear in the frame but seem to be walking backward; they occasionally collide with Kambalu, who politely waves or smiles. The footage is, in fact, reversed. The world around the artist is rendered strange, even though it is his movement against the current that is, in reality, the cause of momentary social discord.

At the exhibition’s entrance, Kambalu installed two large-scale sculptures—Drawing Elephant I and II, both 2021—portraying the titular animals on a monumental scale. Fabricated from Oxford University regalia, they evoked in both their materials and their construction the costumes worn by Nyau masqueraders (of the secret society of the Chewa people) as well as the “initiation rites” of academia. In contrast to the liberated movements of Nyau dancers and to the ritualized pomp of academic ceremony, the installation alludes further to the patrolling of individual movement on a more global scale: This gallery contained an array of colorful flags and banners whose shapes refer to geographic borders and national insignia, thus attesting to restrictions imposed by citizenship and international law.

“New Liberia” also featured Kambalu’s Sanguinetti Theses, 2015, first shown at the Fifty-Sixth Venice Biennale, wherein the artist attempted to detourn the archive of the Situationist International by rephotographing its contents. He was sued by Situationist writer Gianfranco Sanguinetti for the unauthorized reproduction of SI ephemera and protest art and found himself on trial for copyright infringement. In the filmed court proceeding, Kambalu testifies on the spirit of collective authorship associated with Situationism, and that footage mirrors the allusions to judicial process found elsewhere in the exhibition. This multifaceted set of works addressed nuanced varieties of “freedom”—and the ways in which it is too often withheld—by way of law and politics, but also by the comportment and activities of everyday life.

Allison Young