Samson Kambalu

Kate MacGarry, London
Whitechapel Gallery, London

Art Monthly, Issue 400, Oct 2016

Samson Kambalu’s Sanguinetti Breakout Area, originally presented at last year’s Venice Biennale, is a complicated installation consisting of dozens of photographs, a lengthy wall text, some modular furniture and an archive-boxed book as thick as your leg. It sounds dry, but it isn’t. It sounds like it needs a little background, and it does. In 2014, Kambalu, who was born in Malawi in 1975 but who has lived in the UK for the past couple of decades, was on a fellowship at Yale when he encountered the archive of Situationist International member Gianfranco Sanguinetti, the collection having been acquired by the institution’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library the year before. The sale of such material is controversial; in 2009, Yale had applied for an export licence for Guy Debord’s archive but the French culture minister designated it a national treasure – despite Debord being vehemently anti-state – and the Bibliothèque nationale de France raised the million-plus euros required to purchase the collection from Debord’s second wife, Alice Becker-Ho. The sale of Sanguinetti’s archive was controversial too, partly because it contains items by other SI members – including around 600 letters and a number of drawings by Debord, for example – and so could perhaps be considered the property of the wider SI group, but mainly it was controversial because property itself is not a concept that the expressly anti-capitalist group in its heyday would have been comfortable applying to its own productions and ephemera.

The Sanguinetti sale certainly got the goat of Bill Brown, who for more than three decades has been translating SI texts for his Not Bored! project; when he learned of the commercialisation and institutionalisation of the archive, Brown broke off relations with Sanguinetti via a vitriolic but entertaining letter proclaiming: ‘1) You are a liar … 2) You are a sell out … 3) You are a fool … ’, which Kambalu runs as a vinyl wall text across the gallery. The text is partially obscured by an array of photographs Kambalu took of the archive items while in the Yale library: letters, drawings, snapshots and so on are seen held in Kambalu’s hand with the modernist rooms of the vaunted research archive behind. In this way, Kambalu simultaneously claims the archive for himself and for a wider public while also emphasising its institutional owner – a kind of intellectual pickpocketing performed in plain sight. In the gallery, three expansive sets of around 3,000 of these images are also bound as doorstep tomes titled Gianfranco Sanguinetti Theses. And that modular furniture dotted around the installation? It is based on scaled-up tokens from Debord’s The Game of War – Kambalu’s project is clearly a game of power plays and countermoves, played out in the milieu of a spent dissident culture.

To fully understand Sanguinetti Breakout Area, it helps first to see other projects by Kambalu, such as his Introduction to Nyau Cinema, a new work at the Whitechapel Gallery. Here the artist presents ten of his ‘Nyau Cinema’ series of short black-and-white films, most of which depict him performing pointed acts of slapstick: in Cathedral simple jump cuts make him appear to magically walk through the building’s buttress walls (Christian colonialists considered Nyau cinema a backward cult), in Superfly he thrashes on the floor like a dying fly (in mockery of Hastings Banda, Malawi’s president for life, and his ceremonial fly-whisk) and in I Take My Place in History he steps up to pose alongside white classical sculptures in a museum storeroom. Arranged on the walls like a magazine spread, the videos intersperse a text that describes the Nyau cinema of Kambalu’s youth, where film screenings were open participatory events overseen by ringmaster projectionists who would cut together different films to produce exuberant, anti-authoritarian, gift-economy-based celebrations – Kambalu considers these events to be ‘situations’ in the SI sense of visceral lived experience in opposition to the mediated products of conventional commercial cinema. While the essay is fascinating, the work does little to progress beyond this form; it does, however, show how the artist has long embraced Situationist philosophies. This warmth also explains the cutting ridicule so apparent in Sanguinetti Breakout Area, where the commercialisation and recuperation of the anti-capitalist archive are adeptly skewered and Debord’s war game becomes an R&R prop for technocapitalism’s kidult worker bees.

The presentation at Kate MacGarry doesn’t end with the Venetian work, however; it also includes a coda, Capsules, Mountains and Forts. This publication gathers together literature triggered by the Venice presentation: a letter from Brown to Biennale curator Okwui Enwezor insisting that his text and name be removed from the artwork and, more substantially, a legal challenge from Sanguinetti over the installation in which he claimed that Kambalu’s use of his archive breached both his copyright and his privacy, and that the publication bearing his name was counterfeit. The Italian court ruled in Kambalu’s favour, the insightful judgment concluding that ‘the work conveys the Situationist message of sarcastic criticism’. In other words, Kambalu’s détournement of the archive is a Situationist critique of the very notion of the commercialisation of a Situationist archive. The irony is that the artist now employing anti-authoritarian Situationist strategies, Kambalu, required the machinery of the state to defend himself against a Situationist claiming ownership of intellectual property. Where does this leave us? Ensnared in a realm where anarchists have become prison guards, and where it seems that protest is possible only through subtle negotiation with the institutions of authority – be they cultural, legal, educational or commercial. This is a realm where Kambalu’s supple sleight of hand is most definitely required.

— End —