The year 2022 is now gone as we are seven days into the New Year but for some people who really appreciate art, 2022 will not be forgotten easily due to some of the achievements in the creative circle.
This is the year in which one of the true sons of Malawi – Professor Samson Kambalu, who is based in the United Kingdom, made headlines across the world when his sculpture, antelope, which depicts a 1914 photograph of the country’s freedom fighter John Chilembwe was unveiled at Trafalgar Square on September 28, 2022 in London, England.
The fourth plinth in the northwest corner of London’s Trafalgar Square is a platform for changing art installations. Originally erected to hold an equestrian statue of William IV in 1841, the project was abandoned due to lack of funds. Since 1998, the plinth has been used to exhibit a dozen artworks.
Kambalu, a contemporary artist and writer, won praises from Malawians for his work and at the same time selling Malawi to the world through his craft.
Initially, the Chilembwe statue was supposed to go on display on September 14 2022 but it was shifted to September 28 2022.
“To quote Abraham Lincoln, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Chilembwe, we cannot forget what you did,” writer Stanley Onjezani Kenani reflected at the time.
The antelope by Kambalu is the 14th contemporary artwork to be commissioned for public display in the historic central London square.
“This is one of the most important commissions in the world. It takes a long process, over two years to come through. They approach many notable artists around the world to propose and to make it on the plinth is no easy feat, for any artist working today,” the artist said.
Kambalu added: “I always think anything is possible when I am making art – but perhaps history came my way. When I proposed the work, over two years ago, it was before the Black Lives Matter movement went main stream, and I thought Chilembwe was just going to be an underdog among proposed ideas. History has proved otherwise. Many people who have never heard about Chilembwe have empathised with my story. He is a great communicator of his cause through history”.
The Guardian wrote that the sculpture restages a 1914 photograph of John Chilembwe, a Baptist preacher and pan-Africanist, and John Chorley, a European missionary, taken at the opening of Chilembwe’s new church in Nyasaland, now Malawi.
Chilembwe is wearing a hat in defiance of a colonial rule forbidding Africans from wearing hats in front of white people. The following year, he led an uprising against colonial rule. Chilembwe was killed and his church, which had taken years to build, was destroyed by the colonial police.
In Kambalu’s sculpture, Chilembwe is almost twice the size of Chorley, as a way of elevating his story and highlighting the distortions in conventional narratives of the British Empire.
Kambalu said that his choice of subject for the Fourth Plinth was immediate.
“I had Chilembwe’s photograph as the cover on my phone, when I received the email from the London Mayor’s office to propose a work. I was researching Malawian political history at the time for a book, More Lasting than Bronze, a work of Harvard University Press,” he said.
Kambalu said Chilembwe’s photographs have always struck him as highly performative and that he saved on his phone the photograph where he (Chilembwe) subversively poses with his friend the British missionary wearing a hat.
“It was forbidden for black people to wear hats before white people then and John Chilembwe and his friend made this photograph as an act of defiance. I had hoped the photograph would inspire me somehow as contemporary artist working with film and photography,” he said.
Justine Simons, London’s deputy mayor for culture and the creative industries, said Kambalu’s work “shines a light on a hidden narrative of the British empire and will reveal how a simple hat became a symbol for the fight for equality”.
Kambalu has shown the creative world in the country that they should strive for the best in their craft and at the same time research their work and explore various areas including history just like he has done with the Chilembwe statue.
He also went to open a solo show New Liberia at Modern Art Oxford which further contextualizes Chilembwe with aspects of Malawian modernity in the early 20th century.
And last year, he also worked on another project – a book titled A Man Half Wicked, on Malawi political history.
“I enjoyed putting together the project over the lock with my form Greek teacher at Kamuzu Academy Professor Paul McKechney and Dr Steve Nyamilandu,” he said.
Kambalu takes time to call upon fellow visual artists in the country to keep their eyes open and be prepared to learn something new every day.
“There is a big world to be discovered,” he said.
Who is Professor Samson Kambalu?
Kambalu is a professor of fine art at Ruskin School of Art, and a fellow at Magdalen College. He was born in Chiradzulu in 1975 and went to Kamuzu Academy in Kasungu and then studied fine art at Chancellor College (BA) now University of Malawi, Nottingham Trent University (MA) and Chelsea College of Art, London (PhD).
“I am inspired by aspects of both Western and African art, such as film, and the Nyau masking tradition of Malawi. I exhibit my work across nations, mostly in Europe, America, and Africa. My first book, a memoir of growing up in Malawi, The Jive Talker was published in 2008,” he said.
His passion for art is what has made him take risks and at the same time develop his work as an artist.