Listen: Audio Described Exhibition Tour – Samson Kambalu: New Liberia

Explore Samson Kambalu’s New Liberia with an audio described exhibition tour

The artist and curators lead a special tour of the major exhibition New Liberia, featuring an audio described introduction of the speakers and the exhibition.

You can read a transcript of the audio description below.

Welcome to Samson Kambalu: New Liberia. One of South East Africa’s most significant contemporary artists, Kambalu was born into the first generation of the Republic of Malawi, following over 60 years of British colonial rule.  The exhibition draws on elements of Kambalu’s childhood and his current life as a professor at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford. 

This introduction to the exhibition takes the form of an interview between Kambalu and curators Emma Ridgway and Amy Budd. 

Samson Kambalu is a black man in his forties with short black hair and a trimmed beard. At the beginning of the film he’s wearing a black academic gown over a white shirt and white bow tie.  

“My work,” he writes, “is inspired by where I come from, Malawi. In Malawi we have a strong masking tradition called Nyau, and it’s a very playful approach to life.  In my work, play is very important. Play and creativity, or creative play.”

Chief curator Emma Ridgway is a white woman in her 40s. Her straight strawberry blond hair is cut with a fringe. She’s wearing a dark round-neck sweater, black jeans and boots.  

With her is Amy Budd, a white woman in her 30s.  She has shoulder-length light brown hair and wears a dark short-sleeved top, rust-brown pleated trousers and white pumps.

The interview takes place in three different exhibition spaces of Modern Art Oxford.

The first is a light white walled room with pale wooden floor.  Dominating the space, and flanking the three participants, are two massive elephants.  They’re made of black fabric, in fact cut-up academic gowns of the type Kambalu is wearing.  Simplified forms with rounded bodies and thick cylindrical legs at each corner, the elephants stand some 3 metres high.  Their heads are suggested by two round flat discs ears, and a thin stick-like trunk which extends forwards between two slender white tusks. 

Hanging from  the ceiling, and displayed on the walls are a number of colourful flags.  These take elements familiar from real national flags; such as the outlines of countries, blocks of bold colour and geometric shapes, slicing them up and reconstructing them to create symbols of a united diasporic global community.  Also around the space are cinema signs describing artists at work. In black capital letters attached to a cream wooden frame, one reads “A frantic spiral movement of the hand over a drawing board tracing an invisible drawing from the 18th Century.”

The second space is much smaller and more intimate, with dark walls and a blue carpet.  A number of projectors hang down from the ceiling, playing films at different heights on the walls.  In the centre of the space is a raised podium, with a red carpet.  Spot lit are two wooden lecterns which face each other across the podium, each with a book open on top.  For this section of the interview, Kambalu has changed out of academic gown and into a grey shirt and jacket. A grey brimmed hat rests on the podium. 

As a young person, Kambalu delighted at the rapid live editing done by Malawian projectionists, who would splice together highlights from different Western action films in response to lively and proactive audiences.  He was also influenced by the makers of Early Cinema such as  Thomas Edison who often made films less than a minute long that featured simple actions by vaudeville performers playing directly to the camera.  

In “Nyau [Nee-ow] Cinema”, Kambalu performs short ‘rants’ of free expression in public spaces. He chooses locations that in real life could pass as film sets, talks to intrigued strangers off camera, even asking them to hold the camera to film his activity.  Like silent movies, the action is slightly speeded up, fragmented and repetitive – and all are playful and surprising.  “Strip Lander” from 2019, shows a rural barn and a large tree, its leaves and branches rustling in the wind.  On a loop, he runs into shot from the right, arms outstretched like a child playing at being and aeroplane.  Running away from us along the front of the barn, he magically disappears before reaching the tree. In “Bacchus” from 2013, Kambalu wields a whip in a public park. Shown in reverse, curious tourists walk backwards past him, as in a swirl of movement, he uncracks the whip.

In the centre of the final space is white 3D printed maquette of a sculpture Kambalu proposes for the empty Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London.  It celebrates the national hero of Malawian independence – freedom fighter and pan-Africanist – John Chilembwe.  Chilembwe called for Malawi, then named Nyasaland, to become independent from British rule 50 years before it was achieved. Standing on the plinth are two men in Edwardian suits and hats, the Reverend John Chilembwe and his friend Reverend Chorley. The sculpture is recreated from the last photograph taken of them as they stand together to promote the Providence Industrial Mission; the church established by Chilembwe where he preached self-respect and personal responsibility.  

In 1915, after organising an uprising attacking the most abusive plantation owners, Chilembwe was killed British officials.  They tore down his popular church for photographic propaganda.

These photographs are reproduced on the coloured gallery walls as large sepia prints, several metres wide.  They are positioned at floor level, and various bits of text appear above and to the sides of the images. These are from the courtroom inquiries which followed the uprising, bearing witness to injustices that still resonate.  

Chilembwe’s large and impressive brick church is photographed at various stages of its destruction.  Great gaping holes appear in its walls in one image.  In another the roof twists and buckles. In another the tower topples – but as the images are set around the walls, the church seems rather to rise out of the rubble.  

New Liberia is on at Modern Art Oxford and online until 5 September 2021. Find out more.

Audio description by VocalEyes AD, who bring theatre, museums, galleries and heritage sites to life for blind and visually impaired people. Read more about VocalEyes here:

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