Aided by a grant, the Malawi artist Samson Kambalu was able to spend a number of months living and working in Amsterdam. During that period, he focussed his efforts on putting behind him the heavy burden of Christianity that he had born since his early youth. "When people in Amsterdam wanted to see African art I showed them the Holy Bible."
A large green mat is laid out on the floor: a piece of turf with a centre spot and various balls scattered across it. They look like footballs, hexagonal pieces of white leather stitched together in a spherical form. The balls are a grubby grey as if they had already seen the action of a game. If you pick them up - the artist encourages the public to do just that, so you realise that they are not the heavy leather balls that they appear to be, but light toy balls that have in fact been covered with pages from a bible. These are the Holyballs from Samson Kambalu, an African artist who in the autumn of 2000, worked for a period in the guest studio of the Thami Mnyele Foundation in Amsterdam. The aim of the foundation is to promote cultural dialogue between the Netherlands and Africa. It awards grants to artists from African countries enabling them to come to Amsterdam to live and work in the foundation's guest studio for a few months.
In addition to the aforementioned version of Holyball, Samson Kambalu also created two other projects during his stay in Amsterdam. These could be seen during a presentation in the Thami Mnyele Foundation studio in November 2000, marking the conclusion of his stay in the Netherlands. Arranged on a window ledge were a number of glass jars each filled with a small object and a yellow-ish fluid: a small delft blue stone figure, a ten guilder note, a Disney character, a picture of Warhol's portrait of Marilyn Monroe. It would appear that the objects are being preserved by Samson, suspended as they are in his own 'fluid'. It is not his intention to preserve these objects for the future, they are in fact meant to symbolise his consciousness of his new environment, as specimens of his new identity in the midst of his temporary surroundings in Amsterdam.
Black My Story
"I lost my face when I came to Amsterdam from Malawi," wrote Samson in answer to the question as to how the two new projects created in the Netherlands came about. "I began to be conscious of every space I occupied. I began to be conscious of my skin colour. I was suddenly a black man. An African. The first challenge that faced me was to re-identify my space in this new world. My place as a black person in the history of the western world has been a bitter one."
During his wanderings through Amsterdam, Samson discovered that the garbage bags were black. Black heaps mushroom everywhere on the evening before each garbage collection day. He labeled various garbage bags with the handwritten text: "Black My Story". Black My Story became a series of photographs of these labelled black garbage piles in Amsterdam. "This was an attempt to come to terms with my new space. I think that the work was both pessimistic and optimistic."
Samson inserted the photographs into simple photo sleeves. They are casually arranged on a table next to the particularly splendid sketch books, from which it can be seen that Samson is also a gifted draughtsman and writer. In spite of the fact that the photographs have a snapshot-like quality and the informal character of the presentation - as if you are leafing through your cousin's holiday snaps - the images have the mental impact of a sledgehammer blow. With Black My Story, Samson not only defines his own position in contemporary western Amsterdam, he also forces the (predominantly) white Amsterdam observer into the position of a coloured person: This is how it must have felt for centuries - and perhaps still feels - to someone with a different skin colour, in our white world; as a pile of discarded rubbish that no one is interested in, nobody cares about, upon which everyone piles even more garbage and with which anyone can do as they please, before the garbage man comes to collect it, followed by the road sweeping truck that again leaves behind a perfectly tidy street. By the way, Samson's photographs show that this also happens at the Stedelijk Museum.
Samson Kambalu comes from Malawi, a small country in southern Africa situated between Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. Few people are able to pinpoint it on the map, according to the artist that is because there are no wars going on there. Malawi was an erstwhile paradise for missionaries, who took it upon themselves to saddle the population with a tremendous Christian legacy. Samson was born on a stormy November night in 1975. "Thunder and lightning drove me out of my mother's womb after seven months. As Malawi is a poor country, I had to survive in my motheržs embrace without an incubator. I grew up a weak child. They called me Lazarus for I was always covered in wounds from my numerous falls. One day I fell in a well and drowned until an unidentified man walked by and fished me to a new life. From then on, my mother called me Samson. My childhood was from then on riddled with dreams of Jesus Christ, I grew up feeling I had a special calling. I became an artist at the age of seven in an Arithmetic class. My friends and teacher noticed I had a special ability and they called me an artist. They said it was from Jesus Christ."
When Samson was 13 years old, he went to study art at the Kamuzu Academy in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. He became thoroughly acquainted with western ideas concerning art and in addition studied western philosophy and psychology. He was also instructed on African literature and psychology, but the focus was mainly on the West. According to Samson, this has left him with a divided identity. His roots are firmly embedded in an African society that is thoroughly imbued with its own traditions as well as imposed Christianity, his mind however, is filled with western concepts and history, strengthened by a well developed critical ability acquired during his time at the Kamuzu Academy. Samson uses a different metaphor: he says that he is standing on two different feet; one Western foot and one African foot. The spirits of both the colonists and of his forefathers are at stride within him, both, in the name of Jesus Christ and the Holy Bible. He created the Holyballs as a means of calling them to account and creating clarity about the roles they both play in his life.
Modern art born in the Bible
It has taken him years to find a form for his art through which he can express this internal conflict. A form of expression that at the same time could serve as a remedy to that disunity. Samson learned to paint and draw using a broad variety of traditional techniques and materials, and is perfectly at home in many styles. However, he only really found his 'own thing' when he began tearing pages out of a bible and pasting them onto balls and other objects.
The first installation that Samson made with the balls was created a year ago at the Zumba University in Malawi - where Samson lectures at the Department of Fine Arts and Performance. Like a priest, he called on his public to play with the balls. The game was a ritual, as the last supper also is a ritual symbolising the suffering of Jesus, that sinners may be forgiven their sins. The game with the balls became a method for dispelling evil spirits from the past. It would appear, from an article in the Wasi Art Magazine which is published in Malawi, and Samson's own words, that the game with the balls can however be interpreted in various ways. In fact, each work that he makes with the Holyballs adds something to the richness and meaning of the project. You can for instance also see God as a football that everyone aims a kick at when it suits them: one uses him to justify the slavery of the black African population, the other to defend Apartheid. Samson is aware that he also uses God's word for his own purposes. These revelations created through a few balls provide an insight into good and evil on a much more abstract level: how they relate to each other, and in particular, how complex those relationships can be.
There is also a more personal note involved here: that of putting his own somewhat bombastic youth behind him. "I no longer believe in an objective God," writes Samson. "And so Holyball for me is an act of suppressing inner demons inherited from my Christian background. It's an act of preventing me from becoming another Charles Manson. By approaching the Holy Bible on a purely cerebral level, I hope that I can keep my destructive religious emotions at bay."
The Holyballs, and the green football field that Samson made as the following step, form an arena for critical thought about history and Christianity. For himself and for the observer, although in the West the latter hardly has any connection with the bible anymore. "There were many people in Amsterdam who thought I was being anachronistic to work with the Holy Bible. But on the contrary, Holyball is a perfect mirror of our times. (...) Modern art was born in the Holy Bible. Modern art has a Jewish spirit, no doubt about that. This is the least I can say in the deconstruction of the modern secular culture. It is not surprising that the more westernised Africa becomes in the name of globalisation, the more 'Christian' it is becoming. According to Newsweek, there are about 1.500 new churches every month in Africa. When people in Amsterdam wanted to see African art, I showed them the Holy Bible."
This article was previously published (in Dutch) in Kunstblad, issue 4/2001.
Claudine Hellweg (1968) studied Art History and Literature at Leiden University and was trained as a curator in Amsterdam. At present, she works predominantly as a freelance writer in the field of contemporary art.