“Everything in Oxford was built with shady money” – iconoclastic professor and fourth pedestal artist Samson Kambalu

SAmson Kambalu’s solution to being late for an interview is typically audacious: he pulls his speed camera onto the pavement outside the gates of an old Oxford college, fishes me out of the gatehouse, and sprints into the car park beyond. He carries a large bunch of keys, which he uses like a dandy-like Hagrid to unlock the mysteries of the Potter world, which he has found himself in as an associate professor of fine arts at Ruskin College and companion of Magdalen.

The problem with Oxford’s much-controversial statue of Cecil Rhodes, he tells me as we walk up a spiral staircase to the seniors’ common room, stopping for a glass of wine along the way, isn’t that he was a particularly rogue British imperialist. “He was a nobody,” says Kambalu, “who came across a diamond mine in southern Africa and didn’t know what to do with that money. The only problem was bad taste, vulgarity. Everything in Oxford was built with shady money. If the sculpture was good, no one would have noticed. But because it isn’t, Rhodes has become the bogeyman.”

To underscore his point, he waves to a 19th-century painting depicting a slave plantation in Brazil that sits proudly above a fireplace in the dons’ retreat. “If my students saw it, they would definitely ask for it to be taken down, but they can’t because it’s in here.” He giggles. “Maybe I should complain.”

On Wednesday, Kambalu will become the 14th artist to unveil a work on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. In stark contrast to its flamboyant personality, it’s an understated piece that keeps its meaning close. It is based on a 1914 photograph he discovered in an Oxford colonial archive of two men posing in front of a newly opened church in Nyasaland, modern-day Malawi. He distorts the scale so that the 18-foot-tall figure of Baptist preacher and Pan-Africanist John Chilembwe towers over European missionary John Chorley.

“It is a difficult sculpture” … a model of the Kambalu antelope, referencing the hat ban era.
“It is a difficult sculpture” … a model of the Kambalu antelope, referencing the hat ban era. Photo: Matthew Childs/Reuters

So far, so clear: Chilembwe was a behemoth of a man who was killed – and his church leveled – a year after the photo was taken for leading a popular uprising against British rule. But why is the statue titled Antelope? One reason lies in part in the symbolism of the hat Chilembwe wears at a time when Africans were not at all permitted to wear one in the presence of their colonizers. Kambalu, who never goes without a fedora or panama, has placed it high on the preacher’s head so that its peak rises in two. Like antelope horns, he says.

It is a reference to the Nyau masking tradition that has played a central role in the Malawian artist’s work and keeps him closely linked to the matrilineal Chewa people from which his family descends. The antelope, he explains, has always represented the womb, although not necessarily in a biological sense. “It’s the most generous animal in the bush, ruthless, foolishly generous: it gives meat to every other creature.” So, contrary to what passers-by may believe, this isn’t just a portrait of two stiffly posed men. He doesn’t apologize for that: “I’m an artist artist. Antelope is a difficult sculpt. You have to think about that.”

More insight into the rich mythology that underpins his work comes from his memoir, cheekily titled The Jive Talker, or How to Get a British Passport, republished with a new foreword just 14 years after its original publication. The Jive Talker was the work that defined him and at the same time brought him to the brink of a nervous breakdown. After it flopped as a hardcover despite favorable reviews, the British publisher canceled the paperback, plunging them into poverty and despair. He was saved by the enthusiastic reception in Germany, which kept him touring for the next four years.

The Weight of Learning... New Liberia, at Modern Art Oxford, featured elephants in scholarly robes.
The Weight of Learning… New Liberia, at Modern Art Oxford, featured elephants in scholarly robes. Photo: Mark Blower

The Jive Talker was his father, a doctor who fell on hard times but continued to wear a three-piece suit and had a well-stocked bookshelf while developing a habit of waking his eight children in the middle of the night to jive-talk them with beery philosophy lectures. Samson, the fifth child, considered himself an artist from the age of seven. He graduated from an elite private school at the University of Malawi, where one day, as he was playing around with a volleyball, he had the idea of ​​plastering pages from the Bible on it as an insidious homage to his devout Catholic mother. 400 of his “sacred balls” – free to romp around – were to be his “gift” to the Venice Biennale in 2015. The African tradition of giving is another important part of his creed.

Both of his parents died of AIDS along with other family members, although Kambalu himself was young enough to avoid the pandemic that swept southern Africa during his childhood. “Basically,” he says, “anyone who was sexually active in the ’70s or ’80s was dead in Africa because there was no information.” He moved to the UK after meeting his wife Susan, a Scottish development worker, and enrolled first for an MA in Fine Art from Nottingham Trent University and then for a PhD from Chelsea College of Art and Design in London.

For years afterwards, he says, he felt like banging his head against a brick wall. “I was in the UK for a long time and it was impossible to get a show as an immigrant African. It was the domain of white male artists.” His discovery of the reach of the internet was one of two breakthroughs he made during his four-year odyssey to Germany. The other, he says, grew a beard. “I loved it. It wasn’t so much that I looked better, but I just voted with it. As a kid, I never recognized myself in photos, so that was a defining moment. That’s what made me a performer.”

During idle moments on the road, he began posting one-minute films of himself on a then-new channel called YouTube. Initially, they served to keep in touch with his family, but they also took his mind off his depression. “Through the magical medium of film, I found myself in my imagination walking over water and walking through walls,” he writes in his memoir. He formulated a manifesto and called it his Nyau cinema. The quirky and funny films were discovered by a South African gallery owner, who gave him a solo exhibition, which led to his invitation to the Venice Biennale.

Many of his films – even some that have been sold to collectors – are still freely available online, underscoring his continued devotion to the gift and to the anti-capitalist philosophy of Situationist art, which has not been without challenges. There was a career-threatening moment when he was sued for copyright infringement over one of his installations in Venice, which used images from a Yale archive of the work of Italian situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti. Fortunately, the judge saw the Situationist side and ruled in his favour.

Idle moments...a still from Moses (The Burning Bush) from 2015.
Idle moments…a still from Moses (The Burning Bush) from 2015. Photo: Courtesy of Kate MacGarry and the artist

In his relationship with Oxford, Kambalu performs the double act of being the iconoclast making serious art, outfitting a local exhibition with an installation of elephants dressed in scholarly garb, while also making sure one of his Panama hats hangs between the robes outside the seniors’ common room. It is no longer necessary, he says, to have the respect of his father’s generation. He enjoys his life at university but also finds it ridiculously old-fashioned, recalling a ceremony he recently attended: “We all end up queuing for this little bar. And I thought, ‘God. All these geniuses and no one had the logic to think they needed a bigger bar.’”

But, he then concedes, it’s all a mask. While the bookshelves in his study playfully contain nothing but theatrical props – various wigs, a pair of boxing gloves – his commitment to teaching is demonstrated by the loan of his much-coveted studio in a cottage on the college campus once occupied by Dylan Thomas . to a sophomore making large paintings “trying to find his voice.”

Kambalu currently spends much of his time watching expressionist films and reading poetry – not necessarily in pursuit of art. “I usually do art when I have to. But being an artist is a lifestyle for me. It’s a socialized practice. I became an Oxford professor by giving up ambition. In the end, things came to me that people thought I would lose if I wasn’t so ambitious.”

Regarding the fourth base order, he says: “I’m very proud of that. I always say I am the British Empire because I know everything about Britain, but I also know its Empire.” And with that he sets off down the main street in search of a cigar.

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