New Fourth Plinth Sculpture Unveiled: Antelope by Samson Kambalu

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New Fourth Plinth Sculpture Unveiled: Antelope by Samson Kambalu
Statues of two behatted men, with a lamp in the foreground

Trafalgar Square has a new statue — two, in fact — as the 14th Fourth Plinth sculpture is unveiled.

After a few weeks’ delay, occasioned by the death of the queen, the new Fourth Plinth sculpture is finally out in the open.

Antelope by Samson Kambalu features representations of two men: John Chilembwe (the larger figure) and John Chorley. They're the first named individuals to be represented on the plinth since the debut commission in 2005, Marc Quinn's sculpture of Alison Lapper (or, arguably, Antony Gormley's stint, which saw members of the public shin up onto the plinth).

Kambalu's sculpture shows the two behatted individuals, who vary enormously in size, turning their backs on one another.

The artists grabs a selfie with his creation

So who are the two men?

John Chilembwe (1871-1915) is a national hero in Malawi, where he features on banknotes and has a dedicated national day. The preacher and educator was one of the first Africans to mount a serious uprising against British colonial rule in the early 20th century. His campaign was shortlived and not immediately successful, but it proved influential on later liberation movements across Africa and beyond.

The other figure, John Chorley, was a British missionary who posed next to Chilembwe in a famous 1914 photograph. His statue is much smaller, in a deliberate statement by the artist.

John Chilembwe stands beside a missionary in a black and white photo
Chilembwe defied colonial rules of the time by wearing a hat in the presence of a white man. Image public domain

“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," explains the Mayor’s office, which facilitates the Fourth Plinth commissions. The orientation has also been changed, with the two figures facing away from each other.

The fourth plinth with two statues in front of the national gallery

What's it like 'in the flesh'?

The pair of statues, while unusual, are not as in-your-face and sore-thumbish as other recent commissions (which have included a giant blue cockerel, a fly-infested ice cream and a literal giant thumb). It's respectful to its surroundings. It fits.

That said, this is still a massive bit of figurative art, and different enough from conventional statuary to make people stop and ponder. Close up, from the lower part of the square, Chilembwe really stands out, with the smaller figure of Chorley hardly visible. It's neatly done, and packs a powerful message.   

What next for the Fourth Plinth?

long-range shot of the fourth plinth with the fountains in the foreground
The plinth from afar, showing the scale of the statues

Enjoy the commission while you can. The Fourth Plinth has long been mooted as the favoured site for a permanent statue to Elizabeth II — a proposal that has the backing of MPs. Now her time has passed, calls for that memorial are growing — though Fourth Plinth instigator Prue Leith thinks the site is not fitting.

A silhouette shot of the chilembwe statue and a cherry picker

If Elizabeth is to mount the plinth, she faces a bit of a queue. Kambalu's sculpture is intended to remain in place for two years, as with previous commissions. It is then due to be replaced by a work from Teresa Margolles, depicting the faces of 850 trans people from London and beyond.

That takes us through to 2026. Will the monarch wait that long in the face of public demand for a monument? Will another site for her memorial be found? Or will the Fourth Plinth commissions be wound up early? The debate will rumble on, but for the time being we have a statue of another inspirational figure to literally look up to.

All images Matt Brown/Londonist, except the black-and-white shot of Chilembwe, obviously.

Last Updated 03 October 2022

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