Malawian artist Samson Kambalu on the non-Western ways of crafting a narrative

The multimedia artist says there’s no such thing as a passive audience in Africa.

Samson Kambalu is a Malawian multimedia artist, author, filmmaker and professor at Oxford University. 

A collection of his short films, forming part of the Ghost Dance solo exhibition were on show at Goodman Gallery in Cape Town a few months ago. They are motion pictures that showcase his unique approach to making films. The style Nyau Cinema is a fragmented kind of filmmaking that he came into contact with as a child growing up in Malawi.

The artist describes the way public screenings of lively Hollywood action films on the streets of Malawi would entertain onlookers, that reels of footage would be cut up and joined with other action sequences in the name of pure entertainment. These choppy amalgamations of iconic Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris films left such a mark on young Kambalu that it is now a central hallmark of his work.

“A lot of the projectors that were used in Malawi were old. They would break down all the time, so much so that the breaking down of film became part of the aesthetic. That has inspired the way I make film,” says Kambalu. “Some of the composition would be taken out as opposed to what you’d see in typical Western cinema for a passive audience – there’s no such thing as a passive audience in Africa.”

This disjointed way of constructing stories is something Kambalu now celebrates as a feature in itself as the fragmented and repetitive shots keep the audience visually engaged in a more active way than long, sweeping scenes. He believes a non-Western way of crafting a narrative leads to more interesting questions, which is an approach he solidified earlier in his career while writing a book, The Jive Talker, based on the raconteur character of his father and his own life experiences as an African man living in Europe.