Not another contemporary artwork lambasting the British empire, I thought, upon hearing what the Malawian artist Samson Kambalu had planned for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Two figures: one, an 18ft-tall black preacher as colossal as the BFG; the other, a titchy white missionary on a smaller scale, his head barely reaching above his companion’s bottom.
A feeble European stalk, then, outstripped by a mighty African baobab; a reversal of the old imperial power dynamic, with the formerly colonised now victorious, and the erstwhile coloniser meek, subservient. Hardly subtle.
Yet, today, when the black covering came off Kambalu’s three-tonne, bronze-resin sculpture, Antelope, I was struck by something I hadn’t anticipated: its mesmerising stillness amid the tumult of tourists and traffic. This, it turns out, isn’t the equivalent of clickbait in the culture wars, but a calm, contemplative work of art that deserves respect.
Kambalu’s source was a photograph, taken in 1914 in the British protectorate of Nyasaland (now Malawi), of the preacher and pan-Africanist John Chilembwe and the English missionary John Chorley standing abreast before the former’s new Baptist church. In it, both men are wearing hats.
Innocuous, right? Wrong: at the time, Africans were forbidden from sporting headgear in front of white people. So, the snapshot records a little moment of sartorial rebellion. A year later, Chilembwe led an uprising against British colonial rule. He was killed, his church destroyed.
In the sculpture, Kambalu, a fellow at Oxford’s Magdalen College (who, for today’s launch, had donned a beautiful brown hat of his own), separates the men so that they’re back to back. This has one unfortunate consequence: at first glance, Chorley resembles a naughty child told to face the corner. Yet, clutching a book with both hands behind his long suit jacket, Chilembwe, a wide-brimmed fedora upon his head, stares in the direction of Charing Cross like someone looking out to sea, engrossed in thought.
In Malawi, where his likeness appears on banknotes, Chilembwe is a hero – but his effigy, here, is no action-ready freedom-fighter ready to raze Whitehall. Instead, we encounter a modest, bespectacled man of manifest erudition, dignity, and poise, ruminating on history’s complexity: not Superman, but Clark Kent. Trafalgar Square has often been a place for protest, but Chilembwe’s is so subtle, you scarcely register it. If Antelope is intended to be disruptive, its spirit is gentle, not iconoclastic. The surreal title, alluding to Malawian folklore, enhances the sense that we’re in a world of nuance.
Moreover, to its credit, Antelope has none of the trite, look-at-me, jazz-hands quality that characterised several of its showboating predecessors, such as David Shrigley’s silly thumbs-up. As a result – no monstrous carbuncle, this – it fits right in. The verticality of the figures chimes with Nelson’s Column and the spire of St Martin-in-the-Fields; echoing the statuary elsewhere, Kambalu’s ensemble looks especially handsome when viewed from across the square.
There’s been a lot of talk lately that contemporary art on the Fourth Plinth should make way for a monument to Queen Elizabeth II. Big mistake. Peripheral, inappropriately close to a public toilet, and dwarfed by Nelson’s Column, the Fourth Plinth is a profoundly unfitting setting for such a memorial, even if that’s what it was earmarked for. Her late Majesty deserves something grander, in a better spot.
Besides, Antelope reminds us that there is value in this prominent rolling programme of contemporary commissions. Some we hate, others we love. This time, I found myself rewardingly wrong-footed by the proliferating implications.