John Chilembwe comes to London!

28 September 2022

A blog by David Hope-Jones, SMP CEO.

Today has been a day to remember. I write from the foot of London’s latest landmark: it has been an immense privilege to be a small part of its story today.

This morning I was with SMP members Prof Samson Kambalu and his Scottish wife Susan, for the unveiling of Samson’s amazing statue, ‘Antelope’, on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square.

The statue depicts Malawian freedom fighter John Chilembwe and his missionary friend John Chorley, facing in opposite directions and at different scales, recreating a photo of the pair from 1914. This was before the uprising which Chilembwe led, against colonial rule and racial injustice: the uprising was unsuccessful, it cost Chilembwe and many others their lives, but it arguably began a fight-back against imperial power in Africa.

We’ve talked a lot about Samson and Susan over the last year because we’re hugely excited about their story, and their work to help tell Chilembwe’s story through art. In the era of pulling statues down, and critical re-thinking of our past, we think it’s hugely important to celebrate this moment. The fourth plinth, perhaps the world’s most prestigious art commission, has gone to an inspiring, charismatic, Malawian artist; giving him a platform to raise awareness of Malawi’s most famous freedom fighter.

On his plinth, John Chilembwe towers almost 40 feet over Trafalgar Square, sizing up to and staring past the many projections of imperial power in central London. Cast in bronze like the incumbents of the other plinths in the square, Chilembwe is at the same time in keeping with the prevailing aesthetic while also disrupting of the dominant narrative. Even for those passing the statue who know nothing of Chilembwe’s story, the difference in scale between the two men on the plinth immediately catches attention, provoking questions about power, legacy and commemoration.

For two years, this is where Chilembwe and Chorley will stand, together but apart. Both men had complex stories and it’s important that in celebrating Chilembwe we do not unhelpfully simplify his history. Earlier today we published Ken Ross’ excellent ‘Why remember John Chilembwe’ piece digging into some of these complexities and contradictions, which I encourage you to read, along with the recent Spectator article by Alexander Chula.

I am hugely indebted to Samson and Susan for sharing today with me. I encourage all who want to learn more, and hear directly from both, to join our next Scottish Parliament Malawi Cross Party Group on the 6th October meeting in which they will be speaking.

After a busy day of meetings in London, it’s wonderful to return to where the day began and to take a moment to watch people as they pass; to hear their conversations as they see the statue for the first time, their questions, debates and discussions.

This, perhaps, is what art is for. At its best, art can help us ask ourselves questions, it can challenge narratives which have become normalised and entrenched through the build environment, it can help us see others’ experience and perspectives, it can challenge power, and it can help us better understand our past, to inform our future.

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