He has since learned to turn his silence into an ecstasy of imagination.
But visual and performing artist Elson Kambalu is quick to confess that, as recently as 1999, his silence used to be riddled with regrets and unanswered questions.
“Having just graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Business Administration from The Polytechnic- a constituent college of the University of Malawi (Unima)- and a postgraduate Diploma in Marketing from the Chartered Institute of Marketing, I was busy looking for a job,” Kambalu says, adding:
Adds Kambalu: “I had not yet discovered the artist in me and was busy looking for a job. I found none, and that, kind of, affected me. I could sit down and ask myself all sorts of questions. All I could do, during my quiet hours, was to think about this and had no time to think about other things I could do with my life.”
As it were, his flight to the world of employment soon crashed, but, still, Kambalu failed to hear the distant, rumbling calls emanating from visual and performing arts.
Fortunately, the reign of this state of confusion was short-lived.
“I found myself experimenting with art. I started by scribbling down hopeless figures and, somehow, came to realise that there was an artist in me. This happened by accident, though; I found myself in the arts by accident,” Kambalu confesses.
His subsequent interaction with visual artist Nyango Chodola, combined with his interest in the art works of David Kelly, and Cuthy Mede, a pre-colonial artist who once lectured at Unima’s Chancellor College.
Thus begun the artistic journey of Kambalu, a man of two homes: Blantyre and Lilongwe.
The La Galleria Africa Director has moved from the undesirable position of job-keeper to the creator of visual art products. Who would have known, 14 years ago, that Kambalu would be staying amid things that do not even realise the world they are in- making a living out of the imagination, brushes, paints, easels, art papers, canvasses, sketching pads, among others?
Kambalu’s discovery and curiosity have opened a new world of self-consciousness for him, so much so that he has turned a despairing situation into fruitful life. He has even converted the banquet table of his Bachelors Degree in Business Management and Post Graduate Diploma in Marketing into a refuse dump of history.
His is a world away from business calculations, mathematics, though he still needs his marketing skills to market his, and other artists, works. Buoyed by the ambition, he wants people who have indicted language for causing so many upheavals in life to, equally, indict sculptures on the same charge.
“As a self-taught artist, I have come to realise that art works can stimulate debate and inform a nation’s conscious. That’s what I do. That’s what I want to do,” Kambalu says.
Curving a niche
Watching Kambalu translate his imaginations into visible features on the canvass, one is convinced the man adores his new-found ‘friends’. With his hands, he ‘breathes’ life into the shadows of his won imagination.
Sometimes, he says, the ideas are roused from what he knows to be real life experiences. Sometimes, they are simply a rectitude that mimics his struggles and triumph. But, mainly, they are about growing up.
A close observation of Kambalu’s works reveals that they are much about harmony as they are about the conflict that comes with growing up. From the time one sets their eyes on, say, his ‘The Uprising’, an abstract piece of words depicting rising lines that represent opposing forces attempting to get the best out of each other.
“I mainly explore the theme of growing up. There are many things an artist can explore around this issue,” Kambalu says.
That is how the forth-born in a family of eight has been keen to offer arts’ zealots lessons that self-discovery excites human beings in much the same way as it deceives. The excitement that comes after puberty, he enthuses, replete with its wrings with wrong and right, have shaped a life-long career for him.
Kambalu is also quick to point out that, apart from exploring issues of growth and discovery, he is also inspired by his past, and is, sometimes, tempted to depict some facets of that fresh past in his works. His cause is also helped by his interest in people and artistic books.
“At artist should have talent, hard work, develop interest in a wide range of issues, and be educated, to some level. It is because of education that I took to arts’ books. These helped me discover what I was good at, and the sort of stories I had to tell. It also helped me develop perseverance as I developed my skills,” Kambalu says.
Man of three faces
While at was, at first, like a thought too strange to house within Kambalu’s brain, he has grown accustomed to it. In fact, once he made that discovery that “I had a sense of shapes and figures”, his prowess and ambition have shrunk not, establishing him as one of Malawi’s most talented visual artists.
“My farce (at not securing employment), I found, was not tragedy. It, instead, helped me concentrate on learning and nurturing my new-found artistic skills in four grueling years of learning and practice since 2000.
“Today, I cannot believe it that I have evolved into a curator (someone who works of behalf of others to collect art works), art entrepreneur- as owner of La Galleria Africa in Lilongwe- and artist,” Kambalu says.
A hand the reacheth out
While Kambalu seems contented, he decries that Malawi is short on art schools, saying the country needed more institutions such as Bishop Mackenzie and Kamuzu Academy to nurture the country’s raw talent.
“Sometimes, I am made to believe that I am very fortunate that I have attained what I wanted to attain in art. I have also learned a lot from managing my own art gallery, which I bought from Lois Lossaco (owner of La Carvena Art Gallery in Blantyre) last year.
“But others are not that lucky, mainly because we have few art schools in Malawi. That is why on Tuesday, January 15, 2013, I opened Blantyre Art Club in Sunnyside. We want it to be the starting point for people who want to study the arts in this country,” Kambalu explains.
Blantyre Art Club has started offering lessons in visual and performing arts, and is self-funded by Kambalu. Visual art covers drawing, painting, sculpture, and fashion designing, while performing arts has guitar lessons, film making lessons and theatrical performances, voice lessons, among others, on offer.
Kambalu says these lessons are being offered during after-school hours to enable students attend lessons while going ahead with their formal education. Adults are also drawing lessons from Kambalu’s walk in art.
The home of Blantyre Art Club is the studio Kambalu used while working for Liverpool Wellcome Trust –which has just renewed his contract as an Artist-in-Residence, a task that entails working with medical scientists and studying their world- and depicting the same in his art works.
“I want to be in the middle of efforts to create a new generation of artists. I find that the landscape of visual artists in Blantyre lacks fresh energy. The majority of artists seem to be from the 1960s, 70s. What happened to artists born in the 80s? They haven’t been mobilized. That is why I want to concentrate on education other than the finished products,” Kambalu says.
He says also bemoans that local artists are yet to suck from the productive tits of technology, a development he says has hindered their visibility.
Struggles beyond art
Kambalu, “the self-taught artist who hides his real age”, can, sometimes, get into the limelight for historical, other than artistic, reasons. For instance, he was involved in a battle to preserve the first District Commissioner’s office in Lilongwe a couple of years ago.
This was after the government decided to sell the piece of land to foreign direct investors who wanted to construct a shopping complex at the place.
“I was in a bus, and saw people chopping down trees. I did not like the destruction of that monumental building and took the issue with the Ministry of Culture, which suspended the project. I felt so good and proud of myself,” Kambalu says.
This willingness to wrestle the buffalo by the horns could, perhaps, be behind the former Visual Arts Association of Malawi secretary general’s decision to no longer belong to the association.
“It’s true that I used to belong to the association. But I left because, I think, of my radical ideas. I remain in good touch with over 100 members, though,” Kambalu says.
As Kambalu goes back to his silence of ecstasy, he sees, from the transparent windows of Blantyre Art Club, the artistic sunlight creeping, inch by inch, into the new dawn of Malawi arts!