HISTORY WITHOUT A PAST

Samson Kambalu and Vincent Meessen – History Without a Past at Muzee, Ostend, Belgium, until 17.05.2020

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May 1968 is usually associated with uprisings and the student riots in Paris. Yet there was much more going on, and not only in the West. Protests were erupting all over the world, like a polyphonic scream that things must change. A ‘revolution’ was needed and one of the most striking voices belonged to the Situationists. This international avant-garde movement was strongly opposed to the prevailing consumer society and used all kinds of propagandistic strategies such as manifestos, pamphlets, films, slogans and public actions to ignite that revolution. Vincent Meessen and Samson Kambalu bring the movement’s approach and its resonance in contemporary society together in History Without A Past. The seed for this exhibition was planted – unconsciously – during the Venice Biennale of 2015, in which both artists presented work inspired by this international avant-garde movement.

 

Samson Kambalu is a researcher, author, filmmaker and above all a visual artist. His films and installations reveal a profound interest in mixing and blurring different cultures and histories. With his multidisciplinary installations and videos, Vincent Meessen aims to feed our Eurocentric view of history with new and polyphonic insights. In History Without A Past, they both gather stories that originated in the margins. History is usually written by victors. What is handed down is a mere construction, based on selection and interpretation. The position of the historian holding the pen is of equal importance. The past isn’t something that we leave behind. Its interpretation, however, is a task that lies before us. Here, too, several histories emerge that are usually told in isolation. Meessen and Kambalu invite us to wander through the past and to feed it back into the present. Along the way we become acquainted with a number of fascinating figures, whose significance is rewritten according to the dialogue they enter into with each other and also with us, the visitors.

HAPPY!

Samson Kambalu is in a group show Happy!, at the NSU Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale Florida – till 5 July.

NSU Art Museum Pharrell

Photo: Downtown Photo

NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale presents Happy!, a new exhibition of contemporary works produced by artists who aim to engage the viewer emotionally. As in life, sorrow and happiness are intertwined in their works. Happy! is organized by NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale and is curated by Bonnie Clearwater, the Museum’s Director and Chief Curator, who states, “Many of these artists acknowledge that making art is an essential means for them to work out their own trauma and frustrations, and they suggest that art can provide viewers with a sense of well-being that will help them cope with life’s challenges.”

Happy! includes works by Gesner Abelard, Kathryn Andrews, Cory Arcangel, Eugene Brands, Francesco Clemente, Tracey Emin, Christina Forrer, FriendsWithYou, Félix González-Torres, Adler Guerrier, Keith Haring, Asger Jorn, Samson Kambalu, KAWS, Ragnar Kjartansson, Susan Te Kahurangi King, Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami, Ernesto Neto, Tim Noble & Sue Webster, Yoko Ono, Jorge Pantoja, Carl-Henning Pedersen, Enoc Perez, Esther Phillips, Fernand Pierre, Richard Prince, Rob Pruitt,  Mark Rothko, Robert Saint-Brice, Kenny Scharf, Alake Shilling, Alma Woodsey Thomas, Frances Trombly, Andy Warhol, and others. The exhibition will be on view at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale through  July 5, 2020.

Happy! follows a multigenerational trajectory from the mid-twentieth century to today. Among the earliest works included are two paintings by Mark Rothko: The Party, 1938, depicting a children’s celebration, and an untitled 1956 abstract canvas. Rothko’s thoughts about the nature of emotions in art provide the underlying theme of the exhibition. In a lecture delivered in 1958 in New York, Rothko declared that he meant his paintings to encompass the full range of emotions, and that he introduced “wit and play” and “hope” into his work to make the “tragic concept” of the human condition “more endurable.”

Although the color combination of vivid red, blue and yellow in Rothko’s Untitled, 1956, is unusual for his classic paintings, the coloration is strikingly similar to Matisse’s Joy of Life (Le bonheur de vivre), 1905, which suggests Rothko was aiming to convey the joy of life in his painting. The Party, 1938, also includes the distinctive high-key red, blue, and yellow coloration of Untitled, 1956, further suggesting that Rothko associated this color combination with moments of joy.

“For many of these artists, art-making is a way to channel sadness, stress, depression, and trauma. Their acts of creation reward them with a sense of euphoria or hope,” notes Clearwater. “Even when faced with a hopeless situation, they can usually find a creative solution.”

Cory Arcangel brings Rothko’s philosophical approach up to date by using wit and humor to denigrate technology for failing to deliver on its promise of progress. In his digital work on view, Arcangel modified the video game Super Mario Bros. so the protagonist has no means for escape. In this video, which runs as an infinite loop, Mario is stuck for all eternity on a cube. Mario’s dilemma is at once pathetic yet cathartic to watch, as viewers find themselves empathizing with his predicament. “For Arcangel, the creation of this and other works provided a constructive means to address his own frustrations,” says Clearwater.

Among other artists who address the subject of hope are Miami artist Jorge Pantoja and British artist Tracey Emin. Pantoja celebrated his emergence from a long period of apathy, which had inhibited him from working, when he painted Over the Hill and Far Away, 2018, in which his depiction of Spider-Man leaping into the void represents his own newfound excitement in jumping into what Pantoja calls “the friendly unknown.” Regarding Emin, Clearwater points out that “Emin has stated that she cannot work from happiness. Her early film Why I Never Became a Dancer, 1995, is a story of her triumph through art over personal trauma and humiliations.” The film ends with the artist alone in her studio, dancing like a whirling dervish to the disco beat of Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” In the final scene, the artist looks out at the audience with a broad smile, giving a wink and two thumbs up as a bird ascends to the sky.

The exhibition also looks at archetypal symbols of happiness such as the smile, the rainbow, and clouds. Rob Pruitt’s 132 Rothko-like colorfield paintings are inscribed with smile emojis, and Yoko Ono’s A Box of Smile opens to reflect the viewer’s smile in its mirror.

Andy Warhol’s 1966 installation Silver Clouds is literally the “silver lining” that promises better times. Works by the art collective FriendsWithYou include a monumental inflatable rainbow and a major installation of their iconic character, Little Cloud. FriendsWithYou describes the floating Little Cloud as a symbol with the power to move the anxious viewer to a relaxed and joyous state by offering a positive message of happiness and connectivity.

Cartoon and manga characters and cuddly animals, often signifiers of childhood joy, also emphasize an upbeat outlook in the works of artists such as Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Kenny Scharf, Susan Te Kahurangi King, and Alake Shilling. KAWS’ bronze statue COMPANION (PASSING THROUGH), conversely transforms a universal pop icon of happiness, into his alter-ego COMPANION character to express his own feelings of mortification and remorse. Other artists use symbols of celebration, such as confetti, employed by Frances Trombly, and caviar, used by Enoc Perez, as emblems of transitory emotional states experienced before and after joyous occasions.

The power of music, dance, song, spirituality, sex, and psychedelic drugs are harnessed by several of the featured artists, including Tracey Emin, Keith Haring, Ragnar Kjartansson, Richard Prince, and Kenny Scharf, while the generous gesture of gift-giving and healing (acts that give both the artist and viewer pleasure) motivated Félix González-Torres, Samson Kambalu and Ernesto Neto. Several of these artists recognize the importance of play as a biological necessity that leads to increased happiness. As Clearwater notes, “Warhol intended visitors to his Silver Clouds installations to interact with the buoyant helium-filled reflective pillows. As they walk through the space the pillows rise and fall, creating an atmosphere of blissful enjoyment.” Kenny Scharf similarly provides the viewer with a mind-altering experience in his signature Cosmic Cavern, an immersive day-glo, multi-sensory installation that mixes Pop art with the hedonistic 1980s club and disco culture.

One section of the exhibition focuses on artists who reclaimed the joy of art-making that they experienced as children, eliminating the rules of art altogether so they could achieve a more immediate level of expression. These include several Cobra artists, such as Eugene Brand and Asger Jorn, whose works are drawn from NSU Art Museum’s extensive collection of this post-World War II art movement. Mark Rothko, who taught art to children from 1929 to 1952, and his contemporary, Esther Phillips, were formally trained in art, yet both chose to emulate the characteristics inherent in children’s art. Los Angeles artist Alake Shilling (born 1993, and the youngest artist in the exhibition) was inspired as a child by the work of Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and FriendsWithYou, and continues to tap her inner child in her paintings and sculptures.

Other artists in the exhibition imagine an existence in which sorrow and pain do not exist, including the representations of “Paradise before the Fall” by Haitian artist Gesner Abelard and Fernand Pierre. “Infancy is another state of oblivion,” states Clearwater. “This brief period of bliss is humorously disrupted in Christina Forrer’s tapestry Baby, in which a disembodied arm plucks a pink cherub out of the ether. The baby’s contorted grimace expresses its awakening to the horrors and tribulations of the human condition.”

 

POSTCARDS FROM THE LAST CENTURY

Samson Kambalu’s solo show, Postcards from the Last Century,  opens at Peer, London, 24 January – 28 March 2020

Postcards from the Last Century

Installation view. Photo: Stephen White

Samson Kambalu’s approach to making art is akin to his approach to life – ‘I think about life as a creative project’ he says. This ethos is derived from his knowledge of 19th and 20th century Western philosophical thought, richly blended with and viewed through a lens of multiple and merging belief systems as experienced during his youth.

The films presented at PEER were shot during Kambalu’s recent research trip to the Black Forest in Bavaria, visiting Heidegger’s Hut and Bayreuth, the home of Wagnerian opera. His films have the look of found footage from early cinema and are often just a few seconds long, featuring the artist enacting a gesture or action – they have been described as ‘cinematic fragments that blend slapstick and spiritual ritual’. They have the look of found footage from early cinema, but the artist grounds his practice in Nyau culture – a secret society of the Chewa tribe, which is especially known for its ritual mask performances. Kambalu’s ‘Nyau Cinema’ is characterised by spontaneity, playfulness and a non-linear approach to time.

Alongside his films, Kambalu will show work arising from his childhood memory of collecting bubble gum cards of the flags of the world. These national and sovereign identities are manipulated and dissected using smart phone technology to create images that adopt the ‘look’ of geometric Western abstract painting, and also resonate with the vibrant colours and bold pattering of African Kente cloth.

Kambalu’s often irreverent fusion of social, national and artistic tropes and identities is intentionally mischievous and provocative. His aim is to skew our reading of cultural behaviour and customs and to seek out the areas where humanity meets. Having become a fellow at Magdalen College, University of Oxford in 2018, Kambalu relishes the ceremonial and ritualistic customs of the academic life of “lingering medieval scholasticism and ’time wasting’ rituals”, and the parallels that he draws from the ‘radical democracy’ of the Nyau culture he embraced during his Malawian upbringing.

 About Samson Kambalu

Samson Kambalu (b.1975), an artist, author and academic was born in Malawi, where he attended Kamuzu Academy. He graduated from the University of Malawi‘s Chancellor College, Zomba, completed his MA in Fine Art at Nottingham Trent University, and wrote his PhD at Chelsea College of Art and Design. One of his most well-known artworks is Holy Ball, a football plastered in pages of the Bible. He has shown his work internationally and in 2015 was included in Okwui Enwezor‘s All the World’s Futures at the 56th Venice Biennale. His first book, an autobiographical narrative entitled The Jive Talker or How to Get a British Passport, was published in 2008. Kambalu is represented by Kate MacGarry in London and Galerie Nordenhake in Stockholm.

NYAU CINEMA AT CENTRE POMPIDOU

Binelde Hyrcan

Pierrick Sorin et Samson Kambalu

28 March 2019, at 20:00 (2h00)

Cinéma 1 – Centre Pompidou, Paris

PIMPIDOU imageBinelde Hyrcan, « Cambeck », 2011

NYASALAND ANALYSAND

EXHIBITION OPEN AT GOODMAN GALLERY JOHANNESBURG

nyasaland analysand flag eyeON VIEW UNTIL 13 APRIL 2019

Nyasaland Analysand is Samson Kambalu’s second solo exhibition with Goodman Gallery. Working in film and multimedia installation, Kambalu draws on his Malawian upbringing surrounded by syncretic cultures such as the Beni and Malipenga to produce work that celebrates and interrogates the practice of integrating Western influences into local traditions and customs. Through references to a childhood brand of gum, the African Dandy, and Hollywood Westerns Kambalu tells a story highly personal in nature of the post-colonial cultural condition.