Samson Kambalu: New Liberia; Pre-Raphaelites: drawings & watercolors – the review | Art

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A a black man wearing a hat comes out of an arched doorway at an Oxford college. His movements are strange, stilted like those of an early silent film. But at least he’s walking forward, or so it seems. The tourists separate around him, staring, awkward, but they all walk backwards through the quadrilateral – out of step with the professor and his times. Because the movie is called put on (2020), and the black man is the Oxford professor.

Samson Kambaluborn in Malawi in 1975, is a Fellow of Magdalen College and a professor at the Ruskin School of Art. He makes very short, black-and-white and beautifully epigrammatic films that often deploy the oldest cinematic techniques – jump cuts, reverse motion, stop-start photography – to captivate the mind in seconds.

A black man (invariably Kambalu) rushes into an English landscape, arms outstretched, then suddenly passes out. It happens again. He is like an airplane trying and failing to land. The same man tries to lift heavy handcuffs from a dock, but they seem to take over, dragging him menacingly down. Or we see him at an elaborate draftsman’s desk, outlining large flourishes on a sheet of paper; except that nothing appears, almost as if time erases its marks. Draw in the 18th century is the title.

Most wonderful of all, at Modern Art Oxford, is a haunting black and white fragment in which the man is seen in a meadow of water, with a hat and a dapper cane among the willows. We immediately think of Lewis Carroll on the river with Alice. This gentleman pulls the leaves from a low bush; or does it actually magically add them? He steps back to examine the bewildering illusions. The room is called Sculptor.

These films, condensed into sonnets and endowed with their own conceptual poetry, are all made according to the self-imposed rules of what Kambalu calls “Nyau Cinema”, after Malawian mask wearing practices. There are 10 rules – audio should be used sparingly, gameplay should be subtle but otherworldly – but number four is, mischievously, missing. This is a clue to Kambalu’s spirit of dodging. His art seems quick, but unfolds much more thoughtfully.

Two life-size African elephants dominate the first gallery, fashioned from black fabric that accentuates their bulky torsos and pantomime legs. The fabric is sewn from academic dresses, their pleated yokes a perfect simulacrum of elephantine wrinkles. Yet they barely have heads, these Oxford elephants. In fact, they are part of another world that Kambalu calls New Liberia, for which he created new flags.

The elephant in the room… New Liberia by Samson Kambalu at Modern Art Oxford. Photo: Mark Blower

Liberia is Africa’s oldest republic, and such were the hopes of Malawi, a 20th century British colony until the brutal autocracy of Hastings Banda in 1964. NL banners are also stitched together from fragments – look carefully and you will see a map of Wales, Malevich’s black squareskylines, electricity, radiant suns, other flags: an expression of radicalism as graphic as one could imagine in the fabric.

A cell-sized interior gallery contains a film of the hearing in which Italian Situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti sued Kambalu for reproducing all protest documents and photocopies of samizdat he had sold, through Christie’s, to Yale University. The irony is obvious, but the film is worth its two hours – we see it on Youtube – for his resounding statements on art and freedom of expression.

But it feels like an intellectual detour from Kambalu’s own work. At the heart of this show is the question of hats. In colonial Nyasaland (as Malawi was then called), black men had to buy and wear hats from the British, but remove them immediately – on pain of violence – if they encountered a white man. Evidence from a 1915 investigation into this horrific abuse is presented for visitors to read directly into a microphone. It’s nearly impossible to get the words across, not just because of the racist language, but because so much of the testimony belongs to men who have suffered so much.

One was the black Baptist pastor, Reverend Chilembwe, who organized a violent uprising against British oppression in 1915, especially the exploitation of plantation workers in Nyasaland. His church was demolished and his body later found shot. Chilembwe appears here – and in that of Samson Kambalu proposal for the next fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – like a large statue standing next to his white friend, the Reverend Chorley. The men wear identical costumes. Both are wearing hats.

One last chance to see Pre-Raphaelites: drawings and watercolors at the Ashmolean in Oxford, which surprises from the start. To watch the important of Dante Gabriel Rossetti The dream of the day – in which a young lady with a book, apparently dreaming of nature, seems to transform into a forest – must be confronted with a finished painting. Or so it seems, until you notice that the shaded branches are drawn in pencil. Edward Burne-Jones’ pen-and-ink damsel parting with her lover looks exactly like a print. And Simeon Solomon’s chalk altar boys, with their watery eyes and gleaming white hands, could be a homoerotic vision in oil.

The Daydream, 1880 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
‘A finished painting – or so it seems’: The Day Dream, 1880 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Photography: Aliyah

This show mixes art and gossip (inevitably, given the brotherhood’s inclinations). A close-up of Charles Augustus Howell – almost frighteningly tall and prominent, in brilliantly colored graphite – shows us the man who arranged for the secret exhumation of Elizabeth Siddal, so that Rossetti could recover the poems he had buried in his coffin. It’s tellingly hard to tell some seated women apart – three portraits of the same heavy-jawed beauty with bee-stung lips and sleepy eyes actually show completely different women.

And it’s only in the room of stunning Pre-Raphaelite landscapes – meticulous yet airy, and almost high on every little stone and blade of grass – that a sense of the drawing’s potential for improvisational spontaneity really enters.

But even then you feel the use of the rubber and corrective eye. What these works show is the Pre-Raphaelite artists’ obsessive commitment to everything that can be sought – from the faded pallor of a cornflower to the links of a chainmail tunic. The drawings are not so much a study, in which ideas can develop, as a rehearsal for the framed painting itself. It’s a feat, in a way, to make chalk look like watercolor or ink like oil or gesso, but it seems significant that the medium is subject to the message every time. It is an art in which nothing can appear apart from precise factual truth, and where drawing is about verifying those facts.

Star ratings (out of five)
Samson Kambalu: New Liberia
★★★★
Pre-Raphaelites: drawings and watercolors
★★★★

Samson Kambalu: New Liberia is at Modern Art Oxford until September 5

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