What does it feel like to cut up your university gown to create an artwork?
In spring 2021 MFA student at Ruskin School of Art, Michael Woods worked with a group of students at Modern Art Oxford to help create two new artworks by the artist Samson Kambalu.
These works were inspired by the curious practice of ‘détournement’, a creative act that seeks to transform artworks by disfiguring them, an idea first conceived by the avant-garde art group, The Situationists. In his new creative article below, Michael takes his own art historical journey through the works Drawing Elephant I & II, two large-scale sculptures by the artist and Oxford University Professor, Kambalu, uniquely crafted from over forty Oxford University gowns.
Beginning with a gift to Samson Kambalu:
This is presented by M. Woods as a derivative work, using derived images, on the subject of a dérive, with the work of Kambalu ever-present in M’s mind, walking off the map on a “game of war.” This derivation is digitally cut-up, from images copied from Modern Art Oxford’s website. A cut-up of Kambalu Elephants stomping off the arms of a colonizing ©Risk taker.
Is this collage or détournement?
I was one of several students from the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford to participate in the installation of Samson Kambalu’s New Liberia at Modern Art Oxford. Samson directed our participation, each of us stitching the cut-and-repurposed gowns of the University of Oxford, known as the sub fusc.
This was a “constructed Situation”, as originally described in Internationale Situationniste #1 (1958). We were “living the situation”, pushing needles through the cut up gowns, reflecting on the material and our role within the confines of the institution.
Our direct agency would contribute to the situation’s ambiance (the resultant exhibit) directing the spectators through New Liberia and its dense web of relations between institutional prestige and anti-colonial revolt.
The sub fusc is an academic gown that projects an imperial prestige in the guise of academic excellence (nostalgia and spectacle: this is “tradition” from the standpoint of white dominant cultures.)
Kambalu cut his gown and contributed the cut as the first element for détournement. The turn involves the recreation of the Malawian Nyau culture’s traditional use of repurposed cloths to construct and exalt the figure of the African Elephant.
The cut, like the cut in a movie, or a deep cut into the land, alters meaning and function, and can negate the negation of illusory power. The cut can repurpose, redress, reposition, reconstruct, reconfigure, redirect. Kambalu literally addresses the Elephant in the white cube.
At the centre of Kambalu’s larger gesture of the cut is a strategy to create an incision in hyperreality with the force of militant action, like the figure of Malawian freedom fighter John Chilembwe and the defiant act of his hat wearing. Chilembwe, as Kambalu explains, imagined New Liberia as a Utopia. He was murdered fighting the colonised dystopia, where Black humans were placed on trial for the “crime” of hat wearing. (A trial transcript that spectators are invited to re-enact, the fulfilment of the “Constructed Situation”, spoken from academic lecterns.)
New Liberia is also the ironic, renewed simulacrum of Utopia. (Liberia was a failed extension of the racist USA’s attempts at exiling the newly emancipated.) New Liberia recognises its own lack. Its flags mock and celebrate the vacant representation that both flags and cartographical processes place upon reality. These flags flatten while drawing attention to the fractal nature of existence, merging between the physical, the political, and (optical) illusion.
Each flag is a country that exists within a vacuum. Lacking is the basic humanity of white colonisers criminalising Blackness; John Chilembwe wears his hat defiantly in the sculptural proposal Kambalu created for the 4th Plinth in Trafalgar Square, a sculpture that also radically minimises the stature of Chilembwe’s white ally, Rev. Chorley.
A similar gesture stitches together the wearing of the hat with the cutting of the Oxford gown and the minimising of Chorley. Shifting techniques on the game board or strategies necessary to attack while maintaining shelter within the *Undercommons?
How can one be both anti-colonial while wearing the guise of academia and art institutions? Is this a full détournement, a negating of the negation?
Kambalu recognizes this conflict clearly in the Beni dancers of his summer exhibit at Kate MacGarry Gallery, depicting African soldiers who fought on the side of white colonists.
In Necropolitics, Achille Mbembe describes a “zone” of lunacy created by the extreme hypocrisy of Neo-liberal institutions and their Bad Faith criminalisation and erasure of “Blackness”. This negation is at the heart of the University of Oxford, Modern Art Oxford, Kate MacGarry gallery… all of the institutions of power whose structures continue to support the privileges of the dominant culture, among them the privilege of using art as a way to extract prestige while symbolically defusing the historically present atrocities from while the white overseers derive power. Is this a détournement of these institutions or just a collage?
This is not a critique of Kambalu’s strategies, but rather an acknowledgment of the precarious attempts we face as radicals working within and against the structures of colonising institutions. Paraphrasing from Moten and Harney’s “The Undercommons,” these embedded radical entities must utilise rapidly changing techniques to usurp the institution. Kambalu seems to take the militant optimism of **Situationist writings to heart, yet he does not go as far as to “abolish the museum” and to “distribute the masterpieces to bars”. But his attempts at following the directives of Situationist texts eventually spawned the ire of the Situationist ***Sanguinetti.
This is the conflict at the centre of Kambalu’s work “A Game of War: Kambalu v Sanguinetti Trial at Ostend, 2021” an ingenious piece in which Kambalu, in hat, must defend his own actions as an artist, attempting to use the words of the Situationists against themselves. Kambalu recounts his copy/cutting and reconfiguration of Sanguinetti’s archives, sold to Yale University, attempting to unify his own gesture of appropriation and public dissemination with the radical proposals of the Situationists themselves: free all art and abolish the institutions.
But Kambalu still argues his case inside the walls of the institution, both in New Liberia and in the simulated courtroom that serves as the set of “A Game of War.” What will be possible when the new avant-garde is positioned to attack? Is Kambalu setting the game board to prepare for a deeper cut?
Michael Woods is a recent MFA graduate from Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford.