Modern Art Oxford is one of those locations that thrive on celebrating freedom in whatever form it comes. So it is appropriate that it is my first public gallery visit since lockdown and vaccination. I have treated my self to the works of Samson Kambalu and his new solo exhibition, New Liberia. The works are spread over all four rooms exploring notions of social freedom against a background of the artist’s early life in Malawi.
Samson Kambalu is now a professor at the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford University, but his upbringing is far away from (and yet closely tied to) Britain. Born in Chiradzulu, Malawi, in 1975. He studied ethnomusicology at The University of Malawi and Fine Art at Nottingham. He is recognised for situationalism and his playful imagery in film and installations.
The importance of education was a foundation stone for Malawi as it emerged from the era of British colonial rule – formerly Nyasaland. This theme is constant throughout the exhibition as an expression of social freedom. Ruskin’s philosophy was to see the world afresh through art and education. So the spectator to this exhibition is introduced with Drawing Elephants, made from cut up Oxford University gowns. The elephants are ‘heralded by multinational flags’ according to the guide. Two giant cinema signs describing the act of drawing, both introducing this room but also anticipating the exciting climax in the final room. So many postmodern installations need pages of text to explain themselves but once you understand the underlying themes of Malawian independence, education and freedom this exhibitions draws you in very comfortably.
John Chilembwe, the National hero of Malawian independence, is the focus of the second room, where the price of freedom is investigated. A revolutionary who fought for freedom from British rule was killed by the authorities and his church destroyed in 1915, some 50 years before his dream was eventually realised. The room contains a maquette sculpture of John Chilembwe, which Kambalu has proposed for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. The central sculpture is surrounded by a chronological set of photo’s depicting the destruction of Chilembwe’s church at Mbombwe by the British Authorities. Presumably bogged down in the Great European War they did not want the distraction of an uprising in South East Africa.
The third installation may be seen as the fight for Artistic Freedom. It portrays, as Kambula suggests ‘a prison cell containing his controversial book, Sangiunetti Theses of 2015. There are scribblings, imitating the book, on the wall as if someone has been incarcerated to watch the centrepiece video recording. This lengthy recording is of the trial where Sanguinetti took an unsuccessful action against Kambalu, for allegedly stealing the images. According to the guide Kambalu’s defence was the principle of collective ownership (of artistic images), which ‘draws from cultural traditions, preceding capitalist property law’. Ironically this was a cornerstone of Sanguinetti’s philosophy.
Nyau Cinema (2012) is the theme of the final room, a much more cheerful and playful installation. I regard it as a triumph for this very well curated exhibition. This form of cinema, which takes us back to the movies origins, represents a memory of Kambula’s youth. It stems from the practice of rapid live editing of the projectionist mixing western film clips depending on the audience’s reaction. Kambalu’s short clips produced between 2012 and 2019, ‘wittily demonstrate how creative forms of freedom can spark social freedom’ according to the artist. The mixing of forward and reverse motion in some of the clips is very clever and you have to look closely to work out who is actually moving backwards – a heavy ship’s chain seemingly jumping weightlessly into Kambula’s hands is one of the more obvious clues! Look for the hats in the video clips and the central 1915 courtroom testimony of Chilembwe, which illustrate the politics of wearing of hats in Nyasaland bringing the playful installation back to earth with a bump. Apparently there were were rules whereby the indigenous community were allowed to were hats in respect of the ruling classes and all sorts of penalties for infringements ensued.
New Liberia is the name Chilembwe chose for his utopian free Nyasaland and Kambula’s choice for the title of this exhibition seems to me both a recognition of the price of but also a celebration of social (and artistic) freedom.
A note on the gallery itself. I love coming here. It is spacious and there is a variety in the layout of the four rooms that keeps you interested. A very good cafe and a well stocked bookshop, containing an interesting collection of post modern titles. The museum is in the centre of the City so access is easy. The exhibition runs at Modern Art Oxford until 5th September and needs booking online. A must if you come to Oxford.