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John Chilembwe statue finally occupies Trafalgar Square

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SON OF THE SOIL—
Kambalu with his Plinth design, antelope

The sculpture antelope which depicts a 1914 photograph of the country’s freedom fighter John Chilembwe, fashioned by the country’s United Kingdom-based contemporary artist and writer Professor Samson Kambalu, was unveiled Wednesday.

Initially the Chilembwe statue was supposed to go on display on September 14 but the day was shifted to Wednesday.

Several Malawians have congratulated Kambalu for the statue’s display.

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“Today, the statue of John Chilembwe will be unveiled in London, thanks to son of the soil, Prof Samson Kambalu. 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,” social media influencer and writer Stanley Onjezani Kenani said.

Ben Chiza Mkandawire also hailed Kambalu for unveiling Chilembwe statue, likewise Ital Felie B, who said he was happy to witness his cousin Sam Kambalu’s epic moment at Trafalgar Square in London.

The antelope by Kambalu is the 14th contemporary artwork to be commissioned for public display in the historic central London square.

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“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 told Sundelight last year.

The Guardian wrote recently 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.

Last year, Kambalu told Sundelight 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 I am editing and contributing to, More Lasting than Bronze, to be published by Harvard University Press in 2022,” 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 a contemporary artist working with film and photography,” he said.

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