BY Ian Bourland in Profiles | 03 AUG 22

Samson Kambalu's Fourth Plinth Promises to Disrupt the Conventions of Commemorative Sculpture

The artist’s monument Antelope (2022) – a tribute to Pan-Africanist and anticolonial rebel John Chilembwe – simultaneously reinstates the genre while tweaking its meaning

BY Ian Bourland in Profiles | 03 AUG 22

Samson Kambalu wasn’t difficult to spot in the otherwise crowded road abutting Magdalen College, Oxford. He cut a distinct profile from the other professors, whose sartorial parsimony is matched only by their reflexive suspicion. Suffice to say, Kambalu – immediately gregarious, as if we had known each other for years – was certainly the only person sporting bedazzled leather boots and an elegant, wide-brimmed hat. He looked like a character out of the dystopian sci-fi series Westworld (2016–ongoing), or one of the sepia-toned short films Kambalu has made over the years under the aegis of what he calls ‘Nyau cinema’ – a term derived from the Chewa masquerade tradition of Malawi, where he spent the first half of his life. He gamely led me across manicured quads to his studio space, a cottage once inhabited by the poet Dylan Thomas, and back to a plush lounge, an inner sanctum of the college.

Kambalu came to the UK in 2002 to attend graduate school. He recalls fondly his years in London (where he still keeps a studio): a cosmopolitan city in which he could live a more ‘bohemian life’, as he put it, playing in blues sessions or wandering the streets like a flâneur, gathering inspiration. Now, he is a lifetime fellow at Oxford, teaching art at Ruskin College. This more cloistered life suits him, though. Beyond roaming the fields of the shire, which remind him of his rural childhood, Kambalu plainly delights in poring over dense continental philosophy, drawing connections between seemingly disparate sources. Between sips of white wine, he parsed fine distinctions amongst the writings of Alain Badiou, Georges Bataille, Saint Paul and Slavoj Žižek. It was hard to keep up.

Samson Kambalu with Antelope, 2022. Courtesy: Samson Kambalu; photograph: James O Jenkins

Yet, for all his erudition in European theory, Kambalu is insistent about the enduring force of social and political thought from southern Africa, noting that Hegel and Marx alike would have found useful symmetries for their own thinking, but chose instead to relegate entire continents to what Kambalu calls a psychic ‘remainder’. As he explains it, the Nyau masquerade reveals the generative void that reminds us of the transience of all human systems, and the ontological uncertainty that precedes our collective experience in the world. Nyau is the constant in Kambalu’s practice, and helps to frame his new bronze sculpture, Antelope (2022), which will be installed on the Fourth Plinth of Trafalgar Square in London this autumn. In contrast to the often more whimsical commissions installed on a two-year rotation, Antelope’s two bronze figures – a life-size depiction of the British missionary John Chorley and, at more spectacular scale, the Malawian Baptist preacher John Chilembwe, who led a plantation uprising in 1915 at the A.L. Bruce Estates – blend seamlessly with the square’s other, mostly 19th-century, monuments. The pairing is modelled on a 1914 photograph of the duo in front of Chilembwe’s church in what was then called Nyasaland.

It would be easy to read Antelope as an act that celebrates a Black political figure over a white one. Certainly, Kambalu mentioned to me that he closely followed the Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, as well as to the removal of monuments to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy in the US and to Cecil Rhodes – an architect of British colonialism in southern Africa – elsewhere in the former empire. But he insists that there is a deeper logic at work, one that squares with the situationist detournement which is a pillar of his practice. Kambalu worries that the Fourth Plinth series itself could be just another instance in which we are lulled into complacency, the inheritors of the political economy of that empire merely co-opting dissent. ‘People think they are radical but, in my opinion, they’re just hiding the true power of that place and allowing themselves to be made fun of.’

Samson Kambalu, Antelope, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Nordenhake, Stockholm/Berlin/Mexico City; photograph: Carl Henrik Tillberg

Perhaps more powerful than the crowd-pleasing whimsy that typically anchors the plaza is collective memory. Kambalu explains: ‘The real challenge of that space is to make these alternative narratives legitimate. People ask me: “Are you against monuments?” I’m like: “Yeah, I am against monuments, but I’m not opposed to monuments in the form of art.” If you’re just complimenting power then, for me, that monument has no substance. It’s not so much that we have to do away with monuments, but that we have to bring art into them.’

This idea of infusing ‘art’ into commemorative sculpture makes sense on one level: Kambalu is simultaneously reinstating a genre and tweaking its conventions. But I also believe he feels there is a certain kind of romantic commitment, an intentional imbuing of the project, which activates it in social space. This is, perhaps, the ‘remainder’ that he describes, of bringing a space like Trafalgar Square back to a seeming aesthetic equilibrium while revealing the impossibility of such closure. In this case, the Chilembwe uprising underscores the ways in which British modernity – not just in the days of 18th century British naval officer Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, whose effigy perches atop the column at the centre of Trafalgar Square, but throughout the past century – is bound up in violence across a broad landscape. For his part, Chilembwe was killed by askari forces – local police working on behalf of the empire. The cotton plantation where he led an uprising was a microcosm of a system in which the best land went to British interests and the Black middle classes (often soldiers who had fought for the crown during World War I) were among those unfairly taxed and otherwise excluded from sharing in colonial prosperity.

John Chilembwe (left) and John Chorley (right), 1914

The rebellion was a crucial passage in the history of Malawian independence, and Chilembwe’s visage has graced the country’s currency since 1997. Yet, despite Nyasaland’s strategic position in a colonial project that sought to stretch, in Rhodes’s plans, from the ‘Cape to Cairo’, most tourists visiting the Fourth Plinth would be hard-pressed to find it on a map. Nor is this an exclusively ‘African’ story; it’s an example of networks of economics and ideas that animated a much larger system. Chilembwe’s grievances echoed those of American settlers more than a century prior; he studied in the US before returning home and his actions at the Bruce plantation were inspired by abolitionist John Brown’s activism ahead of the US Civil War. Antelope, with its reactivation of this episode and its subtle modulation of material and scale, is not simply a lionization of an anti-colonial leader, it is a disruption of the official account, a recasting of the historical record in the heart of the metropole. London audiences will be confronted with a ‘remainder’ that is all too easy to slough into the mists of memory or the physical hinterlands of another hemisphere.

There may be a bit of Chilembwe’s spirit in Kambalu, as well. The former, in that photograph with Chorley, donned a wide-brimmed hat – an act of dissent and self-possession at a time when many Africans would have removed it in the presence of someone like Chorley. In a city where Kambalu must pass the statue of Rhodes at the apex of the Oriel College facade on his way to work, his steampunk stylings unsettle the threadbare pomp of the place perhaps no less than his elegant theorization of a Nyau aesthetics that is not exterior to Western art history, but profoundly interlaced with it. As we passed that Rhodes statue – Kambalu generously walking and talking all the way down the high street, until he ducked around a corner en route to his next appointment – I found myself wishing I had a few more hours to wrap my mind around it all. What is clear is that few artists so profoundly complicate the neat market categories of ‘African’ and ‘European’ art, and fewer still so ebulliently trouble the power centres of contemporary life. Antelope will solidify Kambalu’s position on the map of the contemporary art world; our job now is to take note, and to be unsettled.

Antelope will be unveiled on the Fourth Plinth of Trafalgar Square, London on 14 September 2022.

Main image: Samson Kambalu, Moses (Burning Bush), 2015, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg/Cape Town/London

Ian Bourland is a critic and associate professor of art history at Georgetown University, USA. He writes widely on art, pop culture and aesthetics, and has published two books, Bloodflowers (Duke University Press, 2019) and Blue Lines (Bloomsbury, 2019).