A colonialist’s head on a stick would be a more honest sculpture

An artist and his work: Samson Kambalu in front of his anti-colonialist sculpture Antelope, currently occupying the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square
An artist and his work: Samson Kambalu in front of his anti-colonialist sculpture Antelope, currently occupying the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square - Jamie Lorriman

From September, the sculpture on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square will be a montage of “casts of the faces of 850 trans people, most of whom are sex workers”, says the mayor of London. Not all will be from London. “This marginalised community,” says the mayor’s office, “sometimes is unable to access social care”.

It will look lovely, arranged on a Central American skull rack “used to display the remains of war captives or sacrifice victims”.

En route to the National Gallery, crocodiles of little children in high-vis clothing will ask: “Please, Miss, why are all those funny faces piled up?” Gone are the days when the answer might be: “It’s because they didn’t eat their greens. You might become a trans sex worker unable to access social care if you don’t eat your greens.”

An otherwise intelligent friend told me yesterday that he quite liked the present incumbent: two men in big hats that he took for scout masters. If only.

The sculpture is by Samson Kambalu, fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. I don’t know how much sculpting of the human form he’s done. He did paste pages of the Bible on to footballs once. His Trafalgar Square figures are based on 3D scans of live models, and made from resin, stainless steel and bronze-powder.

They reproduce a photograph from 1914 of a white missionary and a black preacher in Nyasaland, now Malawi.

That is the point. Without a story they look like two men in funny old hats. But before the sculpture was unveiled, the story was that it was “illegal” for Africans in colonial days to wear a hat in the presence of a white man. Challenged by Alexander Chula, a historian of Malawi, Dr Kambalu conceded it was not illegal but “forbidden”. The BBC updated its website; Wikipedia still says that it was “illegal”.

The sculpture is meant to celebrate the defiance of John Chilembwe, the black pastor, in wearing a hat in the presence of his colleague John Chorley. The claim of defiance begs the question.

Chilembwe and Chorley, behatted, look out of a photo side by side at the opening of the black clergyman’s new church, no thought of hat aggression in their minds. Dr Kambalu made them turn their backs.

When the thing went up in 2022, the mayor’s office said that Chilembwe “led an uprising against colonial rule” and was killed and his church destroyed by colonial police. The reality was more interesting and nastier.

Chilembwe did seek German help (during the First World War) to start an uprising. It had little support. He told followers to bring him the head of an estate manager called William Livingstone. They did, after killing him in front of his wife and children. Chilembwe conducted Sunday morning service next to the head impaled on a stake. That would, I think, make a more arresting sculpture in Trafalgar Square.

Now, sculptures to be chosen for a turn on the plinth all bear one heavy burden: as emblems of a tale, true or false, intended to raise activist consciousness.

One, modelled on a mass-produced ornament of a black cat, is to celebrate Charlotte Despard, in truth a remarkable figure – Communist, vegetarian, Sinn Fein supporter and First World War pacifist (though her brother, John French was commander-in-chief of the BEF). But she does not deserve a plinth in Trafalgar Square simply because she wanted to destroy the state.

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