As the 14th public art commission to feature on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, Dr Samson Kambalu’s larger-than-life, paired figurative sculpture “Antelope” is a fitting contemporary representation of the many courageous, anti-colonial interventions pursued by individuals and collectives around the world to destabilise the British Empire, (re-)establish self-governance and achieve independence. Each localised and situated act of defiance – which proved to be more globally impactful than ever initially envisaged – combined with other anti-imperialist disruptions and insurgencies to generate ground-breaking forces of change. Collectively, these resistance movements and revolts grew in strength and frequency to inflict severe damage at the “heart of empire” and ultimately brought about the demise of Britain’s oppressive colonial regime.
As a British-based, Malawian-born contemporary visual artist and fine art scholar, Kambalu drew inspiration for his striking, paired figuration from an historic photograph of two men taken in south-east Africa during the late-Edwardian period of British Empire history, just prior to the start of the 1st World War. The men in focus were Malawian Baptist minister, educator, rights activist and Pan-Africanist John Chilembwe (ca. 1871-1915), shown on the left, and British missionary John Chorley, shown on the right (below).
It is hard to contemplate that Chilembwe’s decision to keep his hat on in Chorley’s presence for that picture was actually a monumentally powerful, anti-colonial statement on racial equality, made in an era when racialised deference was the expected norm. The photographic capture of this pivotal encounter, along with the ancillary, non-verbal, gestural messages conveyed through Chilembwe’s relaxed yet authoritative stance, and his determined, forward-focused gaze, transformed this static, black and white image into a dynamic catalyst for 20th century socio-political change and 21st-century, ‘politically aesthetic’ creative expression.
This contemporary re-imagining of Chilembwe and Chorley’s historic, peer-to-peer relational stance – depicted in bronze, with the asymmetrical re-sizing and foregrounding of the Malawian clergyman overshadowing the British missionary in height, volume and positionality – serves to illustrate the different levels of risk, responsibility and existential imperative to act in opposition to British colonial rule that were embodied by these two men at that time.
Similarly to the visual power of the 1914 archival image, historical accounts documenting Chilembwe’s involvement and leadership in Malawi’s anti-colonial revolt of January 1915 – originally dubbed the “Nyasaland Native Uprising” – provide further insights into just how violent and traumatic Malawi’s liberation struggles were. Chilembwe was shot dead on February 3rd, 1915, as part of the British military forces’ intensive suppression of the anti-colonial conflicts. And it took a further half-century of continued activism for Malawians to achieve independence from British colonial rule on July 6th, 1964.
Today, John Chilembwe is heralded as a martyr of Malawi’s fight for independence.
“The name of the big figure there, John Chilembwe, means antelope. He is an African Pan-Africanist who was the first in Malawi to propose fighting colonial injustices beyond tribal lines.”Malawian artist Dr Samson Kambalu, speaking at the unveiling of his sculpture “Antelope” as the 14th Fourth Plinth Public Art Commission, Trafalgar Square, London (28/09/2022).
Web links and further information
Google Arts and Culture page on “Antelope” by Samson Kambalu – This site provides further details and a photo gallery showcasing different aspects of the artist’s creative style and practice, his past portfolio of work, the backstory behind “Antelope,” and information about the public voting process that led Kambalu to receive the Mayor of London’s 14th Fourth Plinth Art Commission, 2022-2024 – Artsandculture.google.com
Mayor of London’s Fourth Plinth: Past Commissions (2005 – present) – An illustrated online listing of previous public art commissions featured on the fourth plinth in the north-west corner of Trafalgar Square over the past two decades, compiled for the London.gov.uk website
Ruskin School of Art profile for Dr Samson Kambalu – Associate Professor of Fine Art and Director of Research at Ruskin, Oxford University