Scholar and Slacker Samson Kambalu interviewed by David Barrett
The Malawi-born, Oxford-based artist discusses Nyau films, the luxury of time, thinking as a form of gift-giving and how Situationism is the most African art in the West.
Capsules, Mountains & Forts, 2016, installation detail
David Barrett: We’re sitting in the State Room at Magdalen College in Oxford, where you are now an associate professor and fellow in fine art. The room connects the dons’ Senior Common Room with the college president’s lodgings and is filled with historical paintings and artefacts. It feels like a bubble, a room outside time. Samson Kambalu: There is something political about the sense of time in Oxford that I like. I’m practising a politics of time as a luxury that I inherited growing up in Malawi. Time itself is a luxury? In the West, time is money, it’s ‘let’s go to work’. In Malawi there is lots of time, luxurious time. This sense of time is also found in Europe around historical monuments, parks or palaces, where you see beggars and vagabonds and migrants, people with lots of time on their hands. Is this what inspired ‘Postcards from the Last Century’, your show at Peer? Yes, because it seemed that places picturesque enough to be postcards are also places where people like me hang out. There is a grand statue, and underneath there are these hustlers and idlers. But postcards exclude these people, so I thought I would include them.
That sense of unhurried time enables you to make your films and interventions. Definitely. You walk the city on a dérive and see these characters. You see that guy crossing the road, so you go there and you ask a stranger to film you. What I did this time was set up a camera in front of the monuments and just hung out and things happened. I wanted a static camera so that the image would be like a postcard. Some of the films are shot around Martin Heidegger’s cottage in the Black Forest. My studio here in Magdalen is Dylan Thomas’s former cottage. I haven’t confronted Dylan Thomas head on yet, but I thought, ‘I know another cottage’, and that’s Heidegger’s, so I went there to see if it would give me a perspective on this one. You have a long-standing interest in German romanticism, particularly the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, and in Germany you also made films around Bayreuth, the home of Wagnerian opera. For me as an African, German idealism is an entry point to western culture because it says that at the heart of the soul is something mysterious – a kind of madness. It is not the rational man of the Enlightenment, but rather a dark night of the soul that is, in my opinion,
Art Monthly no. 434, March 2020