FROM THE MOMENT you enter the space, you’re implicitly aware that the man whose work you are looking at is an utter maverick, one who is unafraid of cocking a snoot at everything from national earnestness to the discipline of art films. But that is not all: Samson Kambalu brings to the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg an understanding of the discipline of Nyau film making as he lends some Malawian spice to his work.
The anagrammed nature of the exhibition’s title, Nyasaland/Analysand already puts a nifty spin on things, even before you’ve encountered his so-called Bubblegum Flags. These crisp, digitally painted images, which splay out into sewn fabric flags are about a childhood in Malawi as they are about abstraction with a doff of the proverbial cap to Piet Mondrian. But more than that, they make you smile, overlooking the earnest symbolism of national heritage in flag design.
This is not a poking of playful fun at sacred cows without a clear understanding of context, however. Contemporary Malawi is not a happy complacent space. It boasts a dirty colonialist history that became woven together with world war heraldry and local masquerade. Without ever stooping to the obvious, Kambalu indicates this: the squadron of eleven cardboard-cut out Keyala soldiers confronting you, as you enter the space, attest to this. They’re armed, but they’re a push over. Literally. The humour bubbles to the surface but doesn’t allow itself to become silly or crass.
And then, there are the Nyau films. Like one-liner jokes, these tiny videos, lasting less than a minute apiece, play with puns and word constructs. They’re dotted around the gallery, mysteriously, and everything from Superfly, a man lying on the ground arms and legs flailing, near what seems to be the tower of Pisa in Italy; to Exercise Yard, a video so brief that it is really a still, are present. In a sepia wash that speaks of time, the works lend curious texture to this exhibition.
Nyasaland/Analysand is a quirky yet hard-hitting foray into the syncretic culture of Malawi; it’s bubblegum to the eyes but meat to the head and heart. With a handshake to the European Situationists and Lettrists of the ilk of Guy Debord and Mustapha Khayati, it’s an exhibition about political pranks and easily digestible colour. It’s an experience you won’t forget in a hurry.
- Nyasaland Analysand by Samson Kambalu is at the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, 163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank until April 13. Call 011-788- 1113.