In the storied Trafalgar Square in the heart of London, a new statue has been unveiled. This time, it is neither a memorial to a British monarch nor a war hero. Instead, a massive statue of John Chilembwe, a pan-Africanist and Malawian Baptist preacher who campaigned against British colonial control, will stand in its place.
Antelope, a sculpture, will be the newest addition to the Fourth Plinth in the square, which is one of the most well-known public art commissions in the entire world.
Every two years since 2003, the Fourth Plinth has featured a different work of art. Due to a lack of funding, it was initially supposed to house a statue of King William IV, but it has since been left vacant and is currently home to temporary artwork chosen by the commissioning committee and the general public.
The five-metre monument of Chilembwe will be the first representation of an African in Trafalgar Square.
Antelope, a bronze statue, recreates the famous portrait of Chilembwe and British missionary John Chorley taken in 1914 outside Chorley’s church in the southern Malawian settlement of Mbombwe.
In spite of an unwritten taboo that states Africans shouldn’t wear hats in front of white people, Chilembwe is seen in the photo with a wide-brimmed hat.
While the two appear to be standing together in the photograph, the sculptor incorporated a twist to the monument that makes the Malawian’s picture stand out.
The artwork was created by Malawian-born artist Samson Kambalu to make Chilembwe considerably larger than Chorley. His statue, which is five meters tall and towers over Chorley’s.
“By increasing his scale, the artist elevates Chilembwe and his story, revealing the hidden narratives of underrepresented peoples in the history of the British Empire in Africa, and beyond,” says the Mayor of London’s website.
Although the monument takes centre stage in London, Chilembwe remains an unknown figure to many.
“Many people may not know who John Chilembwe is. And that is the whole point,” says Kambalu, an associate professor of fine art at the University of Oxford in England.
Chilembwe, who led an insurrection against the British in Malawi (formerly Nyasaland) in 1915, is regarded as one of the first Africans to combat colonial injustices in the 20th century. Even though the revolt was brief, his efforts had an impact on the entire continent and beyond.
Marcus Garvey, a political leader from Jamaica, and John Langalibalele Dube, the founding president of the organisation that would later become the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, are two figures of black liberation who are thought to have been influenced by Chilembwe.
He was one of four kids; his mother was from the Mang’anja tribe, and his father was from the Yao tribe. Chilembwe, who was raised in Chiradzulu, was greatly affected by Scottish missionaries who traveled to Malawi in the wake of explorer David Livingstone.
Chilembwe first encountered radical missionary Joseph Booth, whose catchphrase was “Africa for Africans,” here.
One of Booth’s first proteges, Chilembwe later traveled to the US with him to further his theological studies in Virginia.
Chilembwe observed the challenges of African Americans while living in the US during the post-slavery reconstruction era.
He left the US a few years later, armed with the confidence to combat the colonial abuses he had witnessed there. An ordained Chilembwe worked to start a mission in Chiradzulu after he was back in Malawi.
With financial support from the US, he constructed a brick church, many schools, and cultivated cotton, tea, and coffee crops.
As a result of new regulations that forced Malawians off their land and forced many of them to work in appalling conditions on plantations owned by white people, there was a rapidly expanding opposition movement against the British administration when he returned.
Following the start of World War One, where Malawian soldiers were sent to battle the German army in what is now Tanzania, Chilembwe had more complaints with the colonialists.
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