Samson Kambalu was born in Malawi in 1975. He attended the Kamuzu Academy, the so-called “Eton of Africa”, graduated from the University of Malawi‘s Chancellor College in Zomba in 1999, and completed his MA in Fine Art at Nottingham Trent University in 2003.
The best known of his artworks is Holy Ball, a football plastered in pages of the Bible. Kambalu held an exhibition of 24 “Holy Balls” at Chancellor College in 2000 at which he invited the visitors to “exercise and exorcise”. He has since shown his work internationally.
His first book, entitled The Jive Talker or How to Get a British Passport, was published in 2008. He currently lives and works in New Haven, CT where he is engaged in post-doctoral research at Yale University.
The interview was conducted by Holger Ehling.

 

Samson Kambalu (c) ehlingmedia 2010

Samson Kambalu (c) ehlingmedia 2010

You were born in Malawi in 1975. That year and those that followed were very much a period of transition. The West was still enthralled with the government of the then president for life (now deceased), Hastings Kamuzu Banda. The political oppression was very strong, which was hardly noticed outside. Growing up in Malawi in changing times, what was it like?

Growing up in Malawi under Banda was normal. It was only after 1989, when the Berlin wall came down, that I was hearing that he was a dictator, that he was repressive, that you are supposed to have multi-party politics and that it was something evil to have a one-party state. But before that we didn’t know any different, so the image of Banda as an evil dictator is something that we will have to work upon. We have to look back, and say, oh yeah, that what it has been like. But I am not saying that things were perfect under Banda. It is just that it was the only thing we knew. Before Banda there were chiefs, and they were just as tyrannical. We just thought that this was the way things were.
In Africa we have a very strong sense of being human. So it is not that before Banda or after the arrival of democracy you could do whatever you wanted. Actually the whole way of African thinking is built around community, it is about respect, about morals. So, this is the life we grew up with. We used to hear rumours that so-and-so had been murdered, that this politician had been bumped off, but we actually thought this was good, because around us we had Angola, and Mozambique, and we used to have these Mozambican refugees and we saw their plight. It wasn’t fun living as a refugee…
So when we heard the rumours about Banda bumping off other politicians, we would say, oh yeah, that’s good, more peace! That was our reaction, really. Maybe because I was young and I was thinking that this was the order of the day, and we had lots of freedoms.
I can tell you that under Banda, as long as you didn’t dabble in politics, you were alright. In my neighbourhood, there were gangsters, there were pimps, they were the underworld of hustlers. Outlaws actually, they were there. And when I grew up we had everything that was coming in – music from America, fashion from Europe. It was there, and there was no rebellion of the youth, even under Banda. And of the people who were in trouble, people like university lecturers and others, we suspected them of wanting to be dictators themselves. But in hindsight, looking back, you know that there were things that shouldn’t have been this way, that it could have been a better world.

You say that in Africa, traditionally most things revolve around the family. In the novel, which, at the surface at least, is very autobiographical, there is the father, who gives the title to the book, The Jive Talker. The father is a person who has achieved something in life, who has achieved some sort of education which gives him a junior, but respectable position as an assistant doctor in hospitals. But at some point in his life something seems to have cracked, he seems to have lost the plot. How is that?

I think that as I get older myself I can understand my father better. I think he was an intelligent man, you could tell by how he made a difference for himself. In a country where the part of the population that went through school all the way was less than 10 per cent, he was very polished. Now that I look back, he was very presentable, a very ambitious man, and he was a quick quick learner and he was honest. He must have been really like by his superiors, because he got lots of promotions, rapidly. He went through life like a hurricane.
His origins are that when went to school, he always wanted to become a doctor, and he was doing well, until one of the missionaries called him a native, that he was a lazy native. He was working in the garden when of the teachers called him a lazy native or something like that and he threw the hoe at the teacher. Missing him, but nevertheless he was dismissed from school. And so he had to study by correspondence, which was obviously difficult and expensive, so in the end he settled to study as a clinical officer. And then a large family came. According to my mother it was due to a lack of contraception. You do not have the choice in Africa, you have this drug this month and then something else. So she ended up having a lot of kids – eight. And after that I think my dad realized he had to stop dreaming and make the best of what he had. He knew he would not be going to London to study anymore, so he studied as a clinical officer and settled for that. But I don’t see my father losing his plot along the way. I think the figure into which he turned at night was a release, because during the day he was a dignified man, you would not know what he had been up to during the night. He had a double life – that of a respected civil servant during the day and at night, a different character; the character of the Jive Talker, which was a kind of Dionysian character that he unleashed during the night.
He started dumping his knowledge on us, but he had always been doing that. As I was growing up I started noticing his lectures more, as you would, and my sisters had done that first. But it was my turn from about the age of five towards my teens that I realized that this man was fond of giving lectures in the night. And his lectures could be about anything, from Nietzsche to Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill. I think he was passing on his knowledge to us in this rather eccentric way, because this character was more irrational than his usual daytime persona. During daytime he was very quiet actually, and he just did his work, but during nighttime he would drink and talk and talk.
Again I stress this attitude, because I understood this attitude as I went back to my home village and I saw the kind of tradition that my tribe, the Chewa, have. There the elders would behave in the same way: During the day they were respectable people, and during the night, especially when the masks came, they changed and became more irrational and laid it all down. One of the great dances is about letting it all go and letting the masks express everything you want. And when you are in that state, people are more forgiving.
So maybe the story of my dad’s character as a Jive Talker has a more complex history, not only one of losing the plot. I find it was more a way of coping with the pressures of modern living. A lot of what was traditional Africa is gone now, and where it is to be found, it is not easy. It is not simply the paraphernalia of tradition were it can be found. It is more displaced, in very subtle places, in the most unusual places and I think that the Jive Talker was the side of my dad which he had let go when he left the village and come to town to become a respectable civil servant.
So these are the things that I start to see as I am getting older, knowing the challenges I have, leading a double life as a professional and as a human being. I think that today I understand my dad’s take more. When you are young you are just expanding all the time, you have the freedom to play all the time, to be one thing. When you are older, you have ambitions, you have contracts, you get work done, the game changes. My dad is the irrational side that I see as just a way to cope. But it is a positive way of looking at it. I am not saying that it was always fun being around, but the thing you can say is that my dad, no matter what he did, no matter how chaotic he was in the night, he stayed there for his family to the end. I am amazed at how he did that, with eight children. My sisters and brothers, we all went to school, we have economists in the family, accountants, administrators and all that. And he managed to put it together. So, in the end, the issues that can come from this, from his irrational behaviour in the night, are the ones I will have to work through throughout my life. But yeah, there are some positives from them.

How much of the Jive Talker is the father and how much of the Jive Talker is the son, Samson?

Like I say, there are ways of coping. As you get older you have these social obligations as a professional. On the other hand there is your true personality, the personality that comes to you instinctively. I definitely think my book is an opportunity to say things that I would be otherwise unable to say in everyday life, as a professional artist. Interacting in everyday life, through my art, I do that all the time. But it is also that I realize that as I get older, something of my father is coming out of it. I do like my drink too, and I like to talk. And you could say that the jive talker in The JiveTalker has as much to do with my father as he has with me. As a matter of fact, at times it is very difficult to tell them apart. Because The Jive Talker is also a portrait of the artist as a young man. And some of my own issues are mixed up with some of my father’s and implanted in him. As a matter of fact, if you read the book, you realize the old man does not get to jive at all. It is me talking. I promise you he is talking a lot and giving lectures, but if you read the book, you see the lectures in there are coming from me.
I did not do that deliberately, I just realized. I studied as a painter and a sculptor and when I started becoming a conceptual artist in 2000, I realized my ideas were not coming so much from my painting classes, my sculpting classes, but from my father’s lectures. So a lot of my preoccupations, a lot of the stuff I deal with as I work as an artist are coming from the drunken lectures my dad gave. I don’t have to take too much poetic licence because it is just a question of working with what I have. It comes both from me and my father, so we both are the jive talker. Not only we, but also the book, my work.

What’s “Jive”?

What is “Jive”? Jive is a joyous approach to knowledge, to being, to becoming, to life. Because as Nietzsche says there is no truth but only interpretations, it means everything ends up as jive. And indeed if you can deconstruct any situation and realize that actually it is all made up, we have this procession of artificial constructions that enable us to cope with reality, to kind of survive reality. And as they are all temporary, they end up as Jive, so the best that we have is life made up of Jive.

But you actually make “Holy Balls”: you take real balls and plaster them with pages of scripture. What kind of Jive is that?

Yes, I do make Holy Balls. It is just basically footballs plastered with pages from the Bible. I remember when I was at university, my friends, by the time they lose their faith, kind of grow up; when they began to evaluate their Christian upbringing, they just put the bible aside and picked up philosophy. But I didn’t. I thought I could do something with that. And the Holy Ball concept comes from making rag footballs. As a child, we did not have bouncing footballs, plastic footballs. Leather footballs were hard to come by, they were very expensive. Most of the time we made our own footballs. And it is the same process that I realised that the Bible for me had become just like any other material to work with as an adult.
I decided that instead of letting it gather dust on the bookshelf, I would make a Holy Ball out of it. So I took the pages, and the pages of a bible work very well if you use plastic glue and put them on a football, and then I made this work of art called Holy Ball. I put it into an empty room of a gallery and invited people to exorcise and to exercise with it. I sometimes make 12 Holy Balls or 40 Holy Balls, and you let people kick them. And I want the ball kicked until it cracks. The Holy Ball for me is an affirmative of that kind of looking at the world, where truth is pretty temporary. Truth is elusive.

Holy Ball (c) Samson Kambalu

Holy Ball (c) Samson Kambalu

Holy Ball is also at the centre of my re-evaluation of my Christian upbringing. It has a kind of dialectic. It is a long story and I wonder if I could tell it now. As a child, my father used to teach us the history of monotheism. And he used to have in his hands this work by Sigmund Freud, called Moses and Monotheism. In this book Sigmund Freud Jives – psychoanalysis is a lot about jiving, you know, putting points together. But it is a pretty good jive that Sigmund Freund gives, and he explains that monotheism actually came from Akenathon, in Egypt, who decided to get rid of all the other goods. Instead he said, we worship the sun – the sun gives us life. And he kicked out all the other Gods for some 17 years and wanted Egyptians to only worship the sun. A number of scholars, including Freud, have called him the first individual, because he was the first one to look at the world in a natural way, if you like. And they say what Moses did was to replace the Sun with the Word, which can be maybe Thinking or the Law or whatever.
Something more abstract: You could say that if you have the football, you have the sun. You have a more natural approach to life, and you can have a more intellectual approach to life. With the coming of Moses, the coming of the Law, that’s when you put the pages of the bible round the football. So you “king it”; you approach Jesus who eventually realises that actually the Word, all these abstractions, the thinking is all human. He interprets the way that God becomes Man ….

When I recall my experiences of Christian worship in Africa, it is very different from what we know here in European traditionally. In your book there are rather clever, bitter takes on fundamentalism, the “born-againism” as you put it in one place. You tell the story of the pastor who starts with a tent and ends up with a glorious religious palace. There is the anecdote of the sister coming back from school pretending to be speaking in tongues but really she has just been expelled for being a naughty girl, and Samson trying born-againism for a while without succeeding and abandoning it after all. Religion is serious stuff these days, not only in Africa – how can one make so light of religion and get away with it?

It was very difficult. Religion was passed on to me as a kind of concept by my father, and it is perhaps the only something that we got from him that we were able to go to church. But he also was a very questioning person, a very sceptical person. You would think that in the night, when he lectures about the death of God, or Monotheism as a History, that actually God is a concept with a History, you are going to say “Oh you are not going to service any more, it is all made up, it’s all holy balls.” But no, the following day, you had to go to church, he always made sure of that, every Sunday. Although he didn’t go himself, or read the Bible, he made us to read the Bible and to go to church. So for me, my art has to be very ambivalent. I always had that questioning attitude, even when I was living with my parents and had no choice but to go to church, I had this questioning approach that I got from the jive talker.
My father’s approach to religion was very intellectual. As far as Christian religion was concerned, this was very Presbyterian. But my mother was very direct. She was a Catholic, she was a good Christian, her approach was more visceral, if you like. But that’s not to say that there was nothing Catholic about my dad – I think of the jive talker as very Catholic. So I was able to grow up with both. Strong conviction and also strong scepticism. And these play out.
When I was writing my book I realised that actually Holyballism is not only a concept that I have worked with as an older person, but it was always there when I was growing up. Even religion was passed on to me by my father as a necessary construction, so to say. Although, through influence from my mother, I came to believe it. I don’t know where my dad got this attitude from. He came straight from the village, but he is one of the most considered persons I have ever known. It must have come from his love of reading; although he didn’t do much reading when I was growing up. He must have done his reading as a youth. When you have a sceptic like that, a philosopher figure in your house, this approach to religion is very easy which, I think, did put me apart from my other fellow Africans.

Family is very important, and this novel is all about family, about growing up with very strong characters as mother and father, as parents. You wrote your novel after the death of your parents. Would you have written it while they were still alive? Could you have written it while they were still alive?

No, no. I don’t think I could have written this novel had my parents not passed away. As a matter of fact, the literature that has kept me company a lot over the years since my parents passed away is that of the Black Death. The Renaissance literature of Boccaccio, of Benvenuto Cellini, some British literature inspired by the Black Death in the Middle Ages. Because that is what I felt AIDS is like in Africa. Both my parents died of AIDS, first my father in 1995, then my mother in 2002.
It was only in 2002 that I started writing, and I can tell you why I started writing: I started writing to find art again, because when my father died, I lost God. It was very easy for me to question God. When I say in my book that God is dead, I am as much talking about my father as I am talking about God.
But when my mother died in 2002, I lost art. I couldn’t contemplate beauty. There were people walking into my studio saying they liked the colours, and that I found obscene after my mother died. But there were reasons for that. When I moved to Europe, I had two options. I had to either study art or get a job and send money home. This dilemma in 2002 before my mother died was that we knew she was going to die because we knew my father had died from AIDS. In 2002 there were rumours that there were drugs that could prolong life. I feel in hindsight like I shut that out and went to become a penniless student, to become an artist. A lot of concept art has to do with youth, you have to get it while you are young. And I wanted to go to school and while I was too young to make my name as an artist, I decided in a subconscious way almost to let go of my mom for art. And when she died, art couldn’t hold up for me. It was obscene, being in a studio – did I let go of my mom for this thing? It is not worth it! So I guess writing for me was a process of trying to find art again. I started writing out of a sense of loss, and guilt.
A lot of people ask how do you write a book and I say “Kill your parents”, that is how you write a book. Writing the Jive Talker was as easy as breathing, putting it together. I had such a strong urgency. As a matter of fact, I do feel now that I am coming around, I am beginning to feel that I like art again. So there is something to be said about writing as a fast-track therapy, because I used to get that from art. But I think writing compresses time. A lot of things I put in the book take a lifetime to express in a gallery. So, as I slowly work as a conceptual artist, I like to kind of fast-track myself by writing.
My teacher always used to say that he thought I can write. I have a friend who I had not seen for ten years and he didn’t say “Do you still paint or play the guitar, do you still do art”? He said “Do you still write?” which was very strange because that was in secondary school. So I guess this writing thing was always there. But it really only came out after the tragedy that is AIDS that I feel is larger than people here in the West appreciate. I think AIDS has no romance, I think AIDS is not here in the West as cancer or anything you can think of. I think AIDS is still taboo now, there is no romance with it.
One thing that I was really happy about was that when I finished writing, I managed to get any meaning out of it at all. That is one of the biggest achievements, I feel, that I have achieved by writing: That I was able to give AIDS a kind of face, some meaning. I know so many of my relatives that have died, uncles; and my father’s generation – I cannot think of anybody who my father used to hang out with who is still living among the civil servants. You know, AIDS came around in the 1980s, and there was no information whatsoever. And of course Banda and all the politicians went like “no no no, this is not our problem here”. It was the same the world over that people thought that AIDS was just a disease for homosexuals or so, and so it really ripped into that generation. The old died in their fifties. My dad was 53, and my mother was 57, and the things that freaked me out as an artist was that one day I would be older than my parents. So imagine us going to heaven, meeting in heaven, being older than my parents – that would feel very strange. I guess writing is about exorcising things like this. With me and Holyballism, we say “Exercise and excorcise”. It extends, it is about confronting your demons. Writing is a way of coming to terms with these things, and one of them is AIDS. There are many issues in Africa I had to come to terms with in the book, but the epidemic here is one of the major themes.