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New Liberia

Samson Kambalu

Modern Art Oxford

Review by Andrew Bay

Malawi’s independence hero John Chilembwe looms over the ‘New Liberia’ exhibition at Modern Art Oxford. Born in Nyasaland in 1871, Chilembwe completed his ministerial training in the USA and returned to Nyasaland in 1900 with growing popularity and a mission to strengthen the population’s sense of independence. In 1915, the Baptist minister led an insurrection against the British colonial government which had dominated the country since the late nineteenth century.’

The desire for freedom from subjugation permeates the work of Malawi-born sculptor and artist, Samson Kambalu. His remarkable ‘New Liberia’ exhibition  – including texts, sculptures and video –  reflects the peculiar quality of his aesthetic, which reconciles the earliest aspects of Malawian traditional culture with its current political and cultural leanings.

Although Kambalu doesn’t explicitly refer to it, the name of the exhibition ‘New Liberia’, conjures the ‘old’ West African state of Liberia, home to freed enslaved African Americans, who settled there from 1816 onwards. Liberia declared its independence in 1847 and has always held a special place in the imagination of Africans and those in the diaspora, as one of the few African nations not colonized by European powers. The exhibition makes powerful references to the symbolism of freedom within the context of African art and culture.

It begins startlingly with a couple of large elephant-like exhibits, surrounded by series of symmetrical flags, a representation perhaps of the constraints other nations have imposed on Africa but also of the grip Africa has on the imaginations of people around the world. The elephants are cloaked in Oxford academic gowns, conventional and irreverent at the same time.

The show features, as a centrepiece, a sculpture and a series of photographs of John Chilembwe. But ‘New Liberia’ arguably tells us more about Kambalu’s exploration of artistic and individual freedom than about the politics of art.

Kambalu has made bold artistic provocations in the past, most notably when he was involved in a copyright infringement lawsuit with Situationist activist, Gianfranco Sanguinetti. Kambalu photographed, and later exhibited at the Venice Biennale, an archive sold by Sanguinetti to Yale University in 2014. Sanguinetti’s lawyers claimed that Italian copyright law prevented a third party from reproducing an artist’s work without notifying the creator. However, a court found in Kambalu’s favour. Courtroom exchanges from Kambalu’s subsequent trial in Belgium are screened in a small gallery of the exhibition. 

‘New Liberia’ finds its centre of gravity in the way Kambalu balances historical symbolism with the power of his imagination. He invites the viewer to a kind of post-modern ceremony which combines high technology with ancestral rituals, digital media with ancient wisdom. In the final gallery of the exhibition, he asks each of us to evaluate our own journey through individual freedom and autonomy, with a series of ten short films, his witty ‘Nyau Cinema’ manifesto.  The series of early cinema-style montages leaves us feeling awkwardly self-conscious about our often overlooked privileges in the choices that we have the freedom to make.

Photo by Mark Blower

An extract from Kambalu’s trial, ‘A Game of War’, can be seen at https://samsonkambalu.com/

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