Samson Kambalu wasn’t hard to spot on the otherwise crowded street next to Magdalen College in Oxford. He clearly stands out from the other professors, whose frugality in fashion is matched only by their knee-jerk distrust. Suffice it to say that Kambalu – instantly sociable, as if we’d known each other for years – was certainly the only person to wear dazzling leather boots and an elegant wide-brimmed hat. He looked like a character from the dystopian sci-fi series western world (2016–ongoing) or any of the sepia-toned shorts Kambalu has made over the years under the auspices of what he calls “Nyau cinema” – a term derived from the Chewa masquerade tradition in Malawi, where he spent the first half of his life. He bravely led me via well-kept quads to his studio space, a cottage once occupied by poet Dylan Thomas, and back to a plush lounge, a college sanctum.
Kambalu came to the UK in 2002 to attend graduate school. He fondly recalls his years in London (where he still maintains a studio): a cosmopolitan city where he was able to live a “more bohemian life,” as he put it, playing in blues sessions or rocking through them like an African American streets wandered flâneur, gather inspiration. He is now a Lifetime Fellow at Oxford and teaches art at Ruskin College. However, this more secluded life suits him well. Aside from roaming the fields of the Shire that remind him of his rural childhood, Kambalu clearly delights in poring over the dense continental philosophy and making connections between seemingly disparate sources. Between sips of white wine, he analyzed the subtle differences between the writings of Alain Badiou, Georges Bataille, Saint Paul and Slavoj Žižek. It was hard to keep up.
Yet for all his erudition in European theory, Kambalu insists on the enduring power of social and political thought from southern Africa, noting that Hegel and Marx would have found equally useful symmetries for their own thinking but chose instead to move entire continents there to refer to what Kambalu calls a psychic “rest”. As he explains, the Nyau Masquerade reveals the generative void that reminds us of the impermanence of all human systems and the ontological uncertainty that precedes our collective experience of the world. Nyau is the constant in Kambalu’s practice, helping to frame his new bronze sculpture, antelope (2022) to be installed on the Fourth Plinth of Trafalgar Square, London this autumn. In contrast to the often more whimsical commissions that are set up every two years, antelopes two bronze figures – a life-size depiction of British missionary John Chorley and, more spectacularly sized, Malawian Baptist preacher John Chilembwe, who led a plantation uprising on the AL Bruce Estates in 1915 – blend seamlessly with the plaza’s others, mostly 19th-century monuments th century. The mating is modeled after a 1914 photograph showing the duo in front of Chilembwe’s church in what was then Nyasaland.
It would be easy to read antelope as an act celebrating a black political figure over a white one. Certainly, Kambalu mentioned to me that he has been closely following the Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, as well as the removal of monuments to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy in the US and to Cecil Rhodes – an architect of the UK Colonialism in Southern Africa – elsewhere in the former empire. But he insists there is a deeper logic at work, one consistent with the Situationist detour this is a pillar of his practice. Kambalu worries that the Fourth Plinth series itself may be just another case in which we indulge in complacency and the heirs to this empire’s political economy are merely co-opting dissenting opinions. “People think they’re radical, but I think they’re just hiding the true power of this place and being made fun of.”
Perhaps more powerful than the philanthropic whims that typically anchor the square is collective memory. Kambalu explains: “The real challenge of this space is to legitimize these alternative narratives. People ask me, “Are you against monuments?” I say, “Yes, I am against monuments, but I am not against monuments in the form of art.” If you only compliment power, then for me this monument has no substance. It’s not so much about getting rid of monuments as it is that we need to put art into them.”
This idea of infusing “art” into memorial sculptures makes sense on one level: Kambalu simultaneously reconstitutes a genre and shifts its conventions. But I also think he feels a certain kind of romantic engagement, an intentional penetration of the project that activates it in the social space. This is perhaps the ‘residue’ he describes, restoring a space like Trafalgar Square to what appears to be an aesthetic balance, while demonstrating the impossibility of such a closure. In this case, the Chilembwe uprising underscores how British modernity – not just in the days of the 18th-century British naval officer Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, whose effigy is enthroned on the pillar in the center of Trafalgar Square, but throughout the past century – is at one vast landscape involved in violence. For his part, Chilembwe was killed by Askari Armed Forces – local police force working on behalf of the Empire. The cotton plantation where he led an insurrection was a microcosm of a system in which the best country went to British interests and the black middle class (often soldiers who had fought for the crown during World War I) were among those who belonged to Wrongly taxed and otherwise excluded from participating in colonial prosperity.
The rebellion was a pivotal period in the history of Malawian independence, and Chilembwe’s face has graced the country’s currency since 1997. Yet despite Nyasaland’s strategic position in a colonial project that Rhodes planned to stretch from “the Cape to Cairo,” most tourists visiting the Fourth Plinth would have a hard time finding it on a map. This is not an exclusively “African” story either; it is an example of networks of business and ideas that have enlivened a much larger system. Chilembwe’s grievances echoed those of American settlers more than a century ago; He studied in the US before returning home, and his actions at Bruce Plantation were inspired by the activism of pre-US Civil War abolitionist John Brown. antelope, with its reactivation of this episode and its subtle modulation of material and scope, is not simply a glorification of an anti-colonial leader, it is a disruption of the official narrative, a rewriting of the historical record in the heart of the metropolis. London audiences are confronted with a ‘remnant’ that can all too easily be flung into the fog of memory or into the physical hinterland of another hemisphere.
It could also be a bit of Chilembwe’s spirit in Kambalu. The former, pictured with Chorley, donned a wide-brimmed hat – an act of defiance and self-restraint at a time when many Africans would have taken it off in the presence of the likes of Chorley. In a city where Kambalu has to pass the apex of Oriel College’s façade on his way to work on the Rhodes statue, his steampunk styles shake up the worn pomp of the place perhaps no less than his elegant theory of a Nyau aesthetic, which is not external to Western art history, but deeply intertwined with it. As we passed this Rhodes statue, Kambalu walked generously down the main street and talked until he turned a corner on road until his next appointment – I wish I had a few hours to take care of everything. It is clear that few artists so fundamentally complicate the orderly market categories of ‘African’ and ‘European’ art, still fewer so profusely disrupt the power centers of contemporary life. antelope will cement Kambalu’s position on the contemporary art world map; Our task now is to take note and to unsettle.
antelope is revealed on the fourth plinth Trafalgar SquareLondon on September 14, 2022.
Main image: Samson Kambalu, Moses (Burning Bush), 2015, film still. Courtesy: the artist and the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg/Cape Town/London