Statue of a Malawian anticolonial hero to be unveiled in London

"Antelope", by Samson Kambalu, restages a 1914 photograph of Chilembwe and European missionary John Chorley as a sculpture
"Antelope", by Samson Kambalu, restages a 1914 photograph of Chilembwe and European missionary John Chorley as a sculpture
Photo: JAMES O JENKINS/Bolton & Quinn/AFP (Getty Images)
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On Sept. 14, a statue of Malawi’s anticolonial hero, John Chilembwe, will occupy one of the world’s most famous public art commissions in London’s historic Trafalgar Square.

The statue, named ‘Antelope’ will be on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, which showcases a different piece of artwork every two years. This piece will be the fourteenth contemporary artwork to be commissioned for display in the famed location and will run until September 2024.

The sculpture, created by Malawian artist, Samson Kambalu, restages a photograph of Chilembwe and John Chorley, a European missionary taken at the opening of Chilembwe’s new church in 1914. It is a historic photo and believed to be one of the last photos taken of Chilembwe before he was killed in an uprising against the British—known as the ‘Chilembwe uprising’ in 1915.

The photograph is also one of defiance with Chilembwe wearing a hat alongside Chorley. At that time, colonial rule forbade Africans from wearing hats in front of white people. While Chorley’s sculpture remains life-sized, Kambalu said he made Chilembwe almost twice the size as a way to elevate his story and bring to the forefront the hidden narratives of the British empire.

John Chilembwe was killed for resisting British colonial rule

“Chilembwe was one of the first pan-Africanists to die fighting for colonial injustices in the 20th century and to do it beyond the tribal lines,” said Kambalu. “The sculpture then comes to represent under-represented people in the history of the British Empire.”

“A lot of people will not know John Chilembwe and that is the whole point.”

Chilembwe is considered a hero for independence in Malawi (then Nyasaland), being one of the first to resist colonialism in Malawi after it became a British protectorate in 1907. Every year the country observes Jan. 15 as a day to celebrate his legacy and his image is also featured on Malawian banknotes.

“We are really excited for Kambalu as one of our most brilliant conceptual artists,” Muti Etter-Phoya, the Director of Logos Open Culture, a heritage organisation in Malawi, told Quartz. “In Malawi, the memory of Chilembwe, a resistance leader, lives on as a symbol of courage, sacrifice and equality.”

“We are happy that his legacy gets to be engaged within the heart of London.”

The Fourth Plinth commissions are chosen through public consultations and the Fourth Plinth commissioning group, with the final winner approved by the Mayor of London.

“Once it stands in Trafalgar Square, it will contribute to bringing to light the untold stories of British colonialism,” Kambalu told Quartz. “These conversations still need to happen in the UK and the British public need to reckon with this part of their history.”