Of the ten films in Samson Kambalu’s exhibition ‘Postcards from the Last Century’ at PEER, London, none is more than 53 seconds long. Soundless and, with one exception, sepia-toned, they draw on the very earliest experiments in the medium, before it adopted theatre’s timecodes and preoccupation with narrative, although they’re shot and edited using 21st-century tech. The result is something Kambalu terms ‘Nyau Cinema’, after a Chewa secret society characterized by its masked dances and stare-into-the-void philosophy, into which the artist was initiated during his youth in Malawi. The twinning of these two lodestars – one cinematic, one metaphysical – points to his adroit way with cross-fertilization, and with compression. It’s a lot to consider when watching something that’s as short as a TikTok clip.
The artist’s avatar in these films is a kind of vagrant-cum-flâneur, part Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp (1914–38), part Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot (1953), part Charles Baudelaire’s Monsieur G from ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863). Played by Kambalu, this figure embarks on a journey through Bavaria and the Black Forest, taking in the town of Bayreuth, home to the annual Richard Wagner Festival, and Martin Heidegger’s rural retreat at Todtnauberg, a wooden cabin where the German philosopher underwent a heroic confrontation with existence, or else (depending on your reading of his life and thinking) indulged a bourgeois romantic fantasy with alarmingly fascist undertones.
Significantly, Kambalu’s films do not foreground the contested influence of the work of either Wagner or Heidegger on Nazi ideology. Instead, we see his avatar strolling in a public park not far from Bayreuth’s opera house, the Festspeilhaus, purposefully ignoring a neo-classical sculpture of a bearded god or hero (Opera 1, 2019) and inspecting the teeth of a marble horse as though he were considering purchasing it as a steed (Napoleon Rush, 2019). Likewise, in the sylvan environs of what Heidegger called his ‘work world’, the artist’s avatar relaxes in a garden chair (Todtnauberg (Heidegger’s View), 2019) or passes through the walls of the cabin like a ghost, before nonchalantly folding up his scarf (Todtnauberg (Heidegger’s Hut), 2019). As in the Lumière brothers’ 1895 short film Train Pulling into a Station, something happens in each of Kambalu’s films, but that something is not a story. Perhaps it is simply presence, being in time.
The question, though, is which time? The past summoned up by the artist’s sepia tones is a knowingly thin digital veneer, and we wonder how this Black African visitor would have been received at the inaugural Wagner festival in 1876, or at the ground-breaking of Heidegger’s hut in 1922. Travel, in this show, is not merely spatial, but (impossibly) temporal. Maybe this is why Kambalu transforms stills from his films into postcards, displayed in a series of tourist-shop racks. In this context, the stock holiday missive ‘Wish you were here’ points to both highly mythologized locations and eras that never were.
If Kambalu’s avatar has shades of the flâneur, other works in the show speak to a neglected episode in the history of dandyism. Standing in the gallery’s corners like stony-faced invigilators are several life-sized, photographic, cardboard cutouts of members of the King’s African Rifles, a British colonial regiment. Following their service in two World Wars, these soldiers brought a new menswear sensibility back to their homelands, which both celebrated European fashion and satirized its power.
Cloth of a different sort features in Kambalu’s wall hangings, which the artist designed on a phone app that scrambles national flags into abstract compositions. Looking at the black and red cross of his Beni Flag, Literate Nation (2020), I can’t help thinking of Wagner, Heidegger and the title of a 1984 painting by Martin Kippenberger: With the Best Will in the World, I Can’t See a Swastika.
Main image: Samson Kambalu, The Country Drowning in Unhealthy Nationalism (detail), 2019, sewn polyester flag. Courtesy: the artist and Kate MacGarry, London