If you ever walked somewhere and a hip-cowboy looking, African man, stopped you and asked if you could please film him and then simply walked in front of camera, doing nothing much, or tossed his hat in the air… consider yourself lucky – you were the spontaneous cameraperson behind one of artist, Samson Kambalu’s films. The film would then be edited, by Samson himself, incorporating brutal cuts, perhaps a reverse or fast forward effect and finally a sepia or black and white filter and there you have it. Resonating with the aesthetics of early 20th century films, these non- linear playful short and rather entertaining films go by the name ‘Nyau Cinema’. Nyau is originally a masking tradition from Malawi that goes back to the early 19th century or even before that. Samson’s works, although incredibly contemporary, are inspired by Malwai’s Nyau tradition playful approach.
Accompanied by stories narrating the experience of watching films in Malawi in the late 70’s, Kambalu’s Nyau Cinema is currently exhibiting at Whitechapel Gallery in East London, giving a curious peak into his childhood memories from Malawi and the impression Nyau tradition a has left on him as a kid.
On Saturday the 10th of September, I was lucky enough to attend Samson’s talk at Whitechapel gallery, and catch him for an interview afterwards. Dive with me into the fascinating world of this thought-provoking artist.
“It started slowly. He says “The whole time that I was writing, or making art in my studio, I always use to play. This is an African thing, we Africans like to dress up, we are dandies, you know with hats and so on, and when I came here I did the same, I bought a hat, I like to groove about…” As I said- hip cowboy. It doesn’t come as a surprise when he later confessed to me that he loves spaghetti westerns. He continues “And then the phones came along and it became easier to make films and I just wanted to act in front of a film. That developed into something definite, because the more films I made, I wanted to edit them, and the only way I knew to edit films was through Nyau Cinema. It’s the aesthetics I knew when I was growing up. It was the excitement of watching those films that I replayed when I started editing my films. For 3 years, I didn’t think that I was necessarily making art because this is how I knew to edit films. I didn’t know that it was something new. And it was only later on when I started meditating on the problem of the gift or African time, that I realized that actually, it’s African time that inspired me to edit my films in this way and it’s actually unique and it’s something that I have to share with the world.”
“The things that really speak to people are irrational.” He says, “We are people of sovereignty, of play. Nyau cinema questions all kinds divisions because in my films, the whole world is a play-ground and play can break borders, it’s universal, I’m always saying that and this is how I connect to people.”
But Samson doesn’t take play lightly, as he tells us in his talk.
“Nyau time is always lurking, people who are selling are trying to get it from you so they can sell you things, let you play their game, instead of making your own film in the street. You have to be careful and aware of this. If you waste your time creatively, you create new relationships, while if you waste your time with commodities you get isolated more and more. Part of the reason why I’m studying this ‘un-productive time’ if you like, is that I want to know how to make it my own. You can see that the walking that I’m doing in my films is a total waste of time. I make films and walk, and I see these Nyau films and I have this joy that the environment I walk into transforms me. All good ideas come from daydreaming, time wasting. Artists struggle with this because we are always taught to be productive but sometimes working doesn’t help a lot. I’m not saying you have to be lazy to waste time; you can waste time productively, creatively! The Egyptians built pyramids to waste time”.
Living in London for the past 11 years clearly doesn’t make Samson feel disconnected from Africa, perhaps to the contrary “I travel but I like the cosmopolitanism of London, I feel at home here. I’m perhaps more connected to Malawi when I’m in London, than when I am in a district in Malawi, because to be in London is to be in the world.” He says.
When I ask him to describe Malawi in one word, he chooses the word “nice” and laughs. “It’s a place going through a lot of transition, there’s a lot of changes, from traditional structures to modern structures and so far Malawians are being cute about it, nice about it. It’s a place where people handle challenges with good temper. It’s a friendly place Malawi, it’s the poorest country on earth, you can’t get lower than Malawi (Laughing) but the values there are different.”
When Samson opens his talk, the first slide he shows us is of a map of Africa with Malawi highlighted and explains that once he had an exhibition in Germany and they thought he was from Mali, so he realized it’s important to show people where is Malawi.
“In tribes you don’t have jobs so you have a lot of time in your hands. There is a sense of party and play in which you can give gifts. Modern mask making is a way of allowing the gift to move, a way of time wasting. Nyau masks exist outside of god. It’s a philosophy more than a religion. When people look at Africa they think it’s exotic, they think Africans believe in these masks but it’s play, African’s know, they are very philosophical about things, even more philosophical than Europeans perhaps, in terms of knowing that it’s just play. If you have a god in your house, you pray to him and if he doesn’t answer, you chuck him out, you make another! (Laughing). How can you get more playful than that? People in Malawi still build their connections through relationships rather than business. You can’t quantify that economy, you can’t put it in figures, its a place of gift giving. It’s about relations, community, and it’s about being in the world. Pursuing values that are not countable but that count. So they are not the richest in the world but they are there and that’s why Malawi is a nice place to live in- you can have nothing but still get along, there’s challenges but it’s liveable. And it’s beautiful to look at by the way! It’s a beautiful country. People like to go to Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa… but I think Malawi is beautiful.”
Samson started his career by writing a memoir, resulting with his award winning book ‘The Jive Talker: Or, How to get a British Passport’ and this is also what he advices young people graduating from art schools today, “Writing a book is very demanding but it was a way to discover things I’m passionate about and one of them was film- and I’m making films now! The childhood experiences between the age of 5 and 12 make a big impression on us and what we later do as artists usually comes from our experiences as kids. So discovering your passions is a good way to start because when you are making something that you are passionate about in art, that’s half the job done.”
Samson Kambalu is represented by Kate MacGarry Gallery in London and his exhibition “Introduction to Nyau Cinema” at Whitechapel Gallery is on until January 8th 2017 and is free to enter. He will also be premiering new works at the film section of Frieze London 6-9 October 2016.
Samson’s website: https://samsonkambalu.com