Samson Kambalu and his idea of play in art and life


The name Kambalu should be familiar to Malawians who are keen on arts. But among many young Malawi arts enthusiasts, the one that is likely to pop up is that of Elson Kambalu. Yet there is another one, a giant of arts, Samson Kambalu. In March this year, Samson had an interview with Aloisia Leopardi of Griot Magazine. We reproduce the interview held in London

GRIOT: You have been invited to TEDxRome to represent all those artists who are Game Changers in our society. To what extent do you think the visual Contemporary arts can change the way people feel and perceive the world, leading individuals to a better future?

Samson Kambalu: By reminding people what the gift is. I see this as the role of Contemporary Art. Getting people to think what it means to give and what the gift is. To talk about the gift is to look at art properly, beyond commodity, beyond art as investment, beyond art as fashion.


Art comes from the gift economy. Nowadays everything is commercialised. When you do something now, you have to explain what you are doing in terms of its practicality. Art is one area where it’s not very clear what you get out of it; it’s almost intangible. What you get from art can’t be calculated and it makes it a special profession because most professions now are utilitarian. Therefore art is a single place in contemporary society where its significance lies elsewhere.

The Guardian newspaper described you as “one of the artists to colour the future”. One of the objects associated to your practice is the Holy Ball – a soccer ball plastered with pages ripped from the Bible. Through this work you say you invite people to “exercise and exorcise” by kicking this object. What kind of reactions have you gained from this work? In what way is it making a change in the contemporary Art world?

I grew up in Malawi and religion is still significant there. Usually Europeans don’t want to listen or hear about religion because they think that the European society has moved on from religion, that it’s a secondary society, making it very hard to get Europeans to be interested in I guess Holy Ball is liked by both religious people and non-religious people. If I stood in the street with a bible, no one would talk to me, but whenever I have a ball in my hands everybody wants to talk to me.


So I have been able to talk about some very important issues using the ball.

The ball has acted as a common mediator between the past and the present. You’d be surprised how some people read the pages glued on the ball, some people kick it, some think it shouldn’t be done, some people think it’s good. Everybody has an opinion.

The Holy Ball is open to interpretation: everybody brings his or her own story to it and that art’s point for me. Art is about creating relations, connecting people who otherwise wouldn’t be connected. The Holy Ball makes the world fresh. It looks at religion with the future in mind.

Your work is inspired by Malawi, a country where you have a tradition called Nyau that incorporates sophisticated reverse role-playing, proverbs, mimicking and satire in performances, portraying a playful approach to life. When describing your work you talk about “creative play”. Is this approach to art and life what sets you apart from the rest of the individuals and artists?

You may ask “why play?” Malawi is not a commodity society. It’s still a gift society. Societies in Africa, in fact, operate on the gift.

For instance, if I make money, it all goes to my relatives to share, because it’s a sharing economy; but the problem with sharing is that it brings resentment.

When you give somebody something then they feel obliged to give it back. So giving and taking is not necessarily easy. Chewa, my tribe in Malawi, has play. When you are playing, it’s like when you are partying: you can drink all the drinks without feeling guilty.

The Chewa has play to orchestrate the distribution of the gift, and masks orchestrate the play.When the masks come out the party begins: people dance and share without thinking.

I think for me this is the role of the Contemporary Artist. The Contemporary Artist can now orchestrate gift-giving in play. I feel that as a Contemporary artist I am playing the role of an African mask to orchestrate play, to create relations, to connect people, to make the world a better place.

You have written an autobiographical book awarded Winner of the National Book Tokens ‘Global Reads’ Prize titled The Jive Talker. In this book you introduce us to Malawi, but also to a little boy obsessed with Michael Jackson, Nietzsche and Frida Kahlo. Do you think that to be successful in the future you must study and look up to the leaders of the past? Could you please describe how the individuals mentioned above have influenced your work?

They say that technology turned the world into a photograph. So technology has made the world small: you can’t hide now. We all imagine ourselves as a contingency of history, as part of history, and we have to study what’s gone before to learn from it. You can no longer look at the world as a kind of loco. I think for me success everywhere is looking at the world as a cosmopolitan.

Whether you are Italian or African or American I think now to function we have to look at the world as one: it makes you more versatile. If you look at the bigger picture it’s easier for you to adjust to things. The same as an artist: you have to be aware of what’s happening, where things are coming from and what technology is brining to you. You have to learn and play with history. I don’t think there is a way of avoiding that.

The article was first published on on March 31, 2016

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