Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth is getting a new occupant, and this time they’re giving the old white dudes a rest, as the statue will celebrate John Chilembwe, an anticolonial hero and baptist who was killed in an uprising in Nyasaland, now Malawi, in 1915.
Samson Kambalu, a Malawian artist and associate professor of fine art at Oxford, has created the sculpture, called ‘Antelope’. It will be unveiled in September and is the fourteenth contemporary artwork to be commissioned for display in the historic location.
‘Antelope’ hopes to bring attention to the inspiring tale of Chilembwe, and talk back to the history of empire that often erases the stories of anticolonial figures.
The statue is based on a photo of Chilembwe taken in 1914, where he stands next to John Chorley, a European missionary. Kambalu designed the artwork to make Chilembwe significantly bigger than Chorley, standing at twice his height.
Pay close attention to Chilembwe’s hat, because it’s much more significant than it might seem: the preacher is wearing the headwear in defiance of colonial laws that banned Africans from wearing hats in front of white people.
A year after the hat protest, Chilembwe led an uprising against the British Empire’s authority and was killed in his church. Today, he’s remembered across Malawi as a figure of independence, with John Chilembwe Day taking place every year on January 15.
Kambalu said: ‘“Antelope” on the fourth plinth was ever going to be a litmus test for how much I belong to British society as an African and a cosmopolitan.
‘I thought I was just going to be like the underdog, because I had made up my mind that I was going to propose something meaningful to me as an African. But we have to start putting detail to the Black experience, to the postcolonial experience.’
Justine Simons, London’s deputy mayor for culture and the creative industries, said the statue ‘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.’
‘Antelope’ will be on display on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth from September until 2024.