• Tue. Nov 29th, 2022

‘Everything in Oxford was built with dodgy money’ – Samson Kambalu, iconoclastic teacher and fourth plinth artist | Sculpture

ByChad J. Johnson

Sep 26, 2022

SAmson Kambalu’s solution to arriving late for an interview is typically swashbuckling: he drives his flash car down the pavement outside the front doors of a former college in Oxford, fishes me out of the porter’s lodge and rushes to the rear parking lot. He carries a big bunch of keys with which, like a dandified Hagrid, he unlocks the secrets of the pottery world in which he found himself, as an associate professor of fine arts at Ruskin College and companion of Magdalene.

The problem with Oxford’s much-contested statue of Cecil Rhodes, he tells me, as we negotiate a spiral staircase to the seniors’ common room, stopping en route for a glass of wine, is not that he was a particularly nasty British imperialist. . “It was nothing,” says Kambalu, “who discovered a diamond mine in southern Africa and didn’t know what to do with the money. The only problem was the lack of taste, the vulgarity. Everything in Oxford was built with dodgy money. If the carving was good, no one would have noticed. But because that’s not the case, Rhodes has become the bogeyman.

To emphasize his point, he gestures to a 19th-century painting of a slave plantation in Brazil that takes pride of place above a fireplace in the Dons’ Retreat. “If my students saw it, they would definitely ask for it to be taken down, but they can’t because it’s here.” He is laughing. “Maybe I should complain.”

On Wednesday, Kambalu will become the 14th artist to unveil a work on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. In marked contrast to his flamboyant personality, it is a sober piece, which retains its close meaning. It is based on a 1914 photograph he discovered in the Oxford Colonial Archives of two men posing outside a newly opened church in Nyasaland, now Malawi. He distorts the scale, so that the 5.5 meter figure of the Baptist and Pan-Africanist preacher John Chilembwe dominates european missionary John Chorley.

“It’s a difficult sculpture”… a model of Antelope from Kambalu, which refers to the era of the hat ban. Photograph: Matthew Childs/Reuters

So far, everything is clear: Chilembwe was a giant man who was killed – and his church razed – a year after the photo was taken, for leading a popular uprising against British rule. But why is the statue called Antelope? Part of the reason lies in the symbolism of the hat that Chilembwe wears, at a time when Africans were not allowed to wear any at all in the presence of their colonial masters. Kambalu, who is never seen without a fedora or panama, placed it high on the head of the preacher, so that its top rises in two peaks. Like antelope horns, he said.

It is a reference to the Nyau masking tradition that has played a central role in the work of the Malawian artist, keeping it close to the matrilineal Chewa people where his family came from. The antelope, he explains, has always represented the womb, but not necessarily in a biological sense. “It’s the most generous animal in the bush, recklessly, stupidly generous: it gives meat to all other creatures.” So, contrary to what passers-by will think they see, it is not just a portrait of two stiffly posed men. He makes no apologies: “I am an artist’s artist. The antelope is a difficult sculpture. You have to think about it. »

Further insights into the rich mythology that underlies his work from his cheekily titled memoir The Jive Talker, or how to get a British passport, which has just been reissued with a new preface 14 years after its original publication. The Jive Talker was the job that did it, while driving him to the brink of mental collapse. After it failed in hardback despite good reviews, the book’s UK publisher canceled the paperback, throwing it into scarcity and despair. He was saved by his enthusiastic reception in Germany, which kept him on tour for the next four years.

The burden of learning… New Liberia, at Modern Art Oxford, featured elephants made from the robes of scholars.
The burden of learning… New Liberia, at Modern Art Oxford, featured elephants made from the robes of scholars. Photo: Mark Blower

The Jive Talker was her father, a doctor who fell on hard times but continued to wear a three-piece suit and maintain a well-stocked library, while developing the habit of waking his eight children in the middle of the night to gossip. . with beer philosophy lectures. Samson, the fifth child, considers himself an artist from the age of seven. He graduated from an elite private school at the University of Malawi where, while playing with a volleyball one day, he had the brilliant idea of ​​covering it with pages of the Bible, in a devious tribute to his devoutly Catholic mother. Four hundred of his “sacred balls” – free for everyone – will become his “gift” at the Venice Biennale in 2015. The African tradition of giving is another important part of his credo.

Both of his parents died of AIDS, along with other members of his family, although Kambalu himself was young enough to avoid the pandemic that swept across southern Africa as a child. “Basically,” he says, “if you were sexually active in the 70s or 80s, you were dead in Africa, because there was no information.” He moved to Britain after meeting his wife, Susan, a Scottish development worker, enrolling first for an MFA at Nottingham Trent University and then for a PhD at Chelsea College of London Art and Design.

For years afterwards, he says, he felt like he was banging his head against a brick wall. “I had been in Britain for a long time and it was impossible to get a show as an African immigrant. It was the prerogative of white male artists. His discovery of the internet’s reach was one of two breakthroughs he made during his four-year German odyssey. The other, he said, was letting his beard grow. “I loved it. It wasn’t so much that I looked better, but I just vibrated with it. As a kid, I never recognized myself in pictures, so that was a pivotal moment. That’s what made me an artist.

In downtime on the road, he started posting one-minute movies of himself clowning around on a brand new channel called YouTube. Initially, they were a way to keep in touch with his family, but they also distracted him from his depression. “In my imagination, through the magical medium of film, I found myself walking on water, walking through walls,” he wrote in his memoir. He formulated a manifesto and named it his Cinema Nyau. Quirky and funny, the films were spotted by a South African gallery owner, who offered him a personal exhibition, which earned him an invitation to the Venice Biennale.

Many of his films – even some that have been sold to collectors – are always available for free online, highlighting his continued dedication to the gift and anti-capitalist philosophy of Situationist art, which was not without its challenges. There was a career-threatening moment when he was sued for copyright infringement over one of his installations in Venice, which images used from a Yale archive of the work of the Italian Situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti. Fortunately, the judge saw the situationist side and ruled in his favor.

Idle moments… a photo of Moses (Burning Bush) from 2015.
Idle moments… a photo of Moses (Burning Bush) from 2015. Photography: Courtesy of Kate MacGarry and the artist

In his relationship with Oxford, Kambalu pulls off the double act of being the iconoclast who makes serious art, providing local exposure with an installation of elephants made from the robes of scholars, while ensuring that one of her panama hats hangs among the robes outside the senior common room. It is no longer necessary, he says, to have the deference of his father’s generation. He enjoys his college life, but also finds it ridiculously outdated, recalling a ceremony he recently attended: “At the end, we’re all queuing up for this little bar. And I was like, ‘God. All these geniuses and no one had the logic to think they would need a bigger bar.

But, he then concedes, it’s all just a mask. While the shelves in his office contain nothing but theatrical props – matching wigs, a pair of boxing gloves – his commitment to teaching is demonstrated by the loan of his very desirable studio, in a cottage on the grounds of the college once occupied by Dylan Thomas, to a sophomore who paints large paintings and “tries to find his voice”.

Kambalu currently spends much of her time watching expressionist films and reading poetry – not necessarily in pursuit of art. “I usually make art if I have to. But for me, being an artist is a lifestyle. It is a socialized practice. I ended up becoming a professor at Oxford by giving up ambition. Eventually, things that people thought I would lose by not being so ambitious came to mind.

As for the fourth plinth order, he says: “I’m very proud of it. I always say I am the British empire, because I know everything about Britain, but I also know its empire. And with that, he goes down the main street in search of a cigar.