BORN into the first generation of free Malawians, the leading East African contemporary artist Samson Kambalu (below) this week became one of six international artists short listed for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.

The Fourth Plinth, you may ­recall, ­rotates, with works of popular ­imagination, and includes the element of a ­popular vote. The exhibition of the short-listed work opened in the National Gallery on Monday and includes work by Polish, Ghanaian, US, German, ­Malawian and Mexican born artists. Of these six, two will be selected for display in 2022 and 2024.

The Fourth Plinth shortlist includes work which focuses on the environment, bodily dysmorphia, transgender, British identity, colonial history and a moonshot. This is why it’s “contemporary” and as such is a departure, by definition, from what is historical, established, sanctioned, familiar and already canonised.

Knee-jerk reactions of contempt are to be expected for things not readily ­absorbed, not yet prepared for in public consciousness, not already integrated into everyday life at scale. They represent a degree of immaturity and impatience with processes of cultural and societal change and questioning.

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From a demand that a statue of HRH Prince Philip occupy the plinth in perpetuity to the entirely predictable fulminations from The Telegraph – “The fourth plinth deserves better than these woke monstrosities” – the shortlisted works are presently providing cannon fodder to the lazy culture wars which rage across these isles.

As usual, in a war, it’s worth looking to contemporary artists not so much for ammunition but for thoughtfulness, for depth, for rebellion, and for an ability to hold together what is not yet compatible, what is not readily understood by an audience. It is a task of contemporary artists to glimpse, prepare, produce and place. Sometimes, this rebellion is hard to stomach, which is kind of the point about rebellion.

The intelligent question is never “do I like it?” or “would I give it house room?” – anyone whose lived through the teenage years of rebellion knows how hard the questions of house room are.

Instead, questions such as what is it trying to tell us about the things we find hard to articulate as ordinary people? What is the conflict it has identified which is not resolving easily? What are the ideas or gravitas this is playing with? Can it point a way forward, for a different step that takes us out of this present-day cultural warfare or out of confusion and fear?

For Scotland, with its long-standing ­international relationship with Malawi, the work of Samson Kambalu is worth our attention. His entry has a bearing on a maturing understanding of Scotland’s colonial past and how it might present, represent and teach its history.

Attending to Kambalu’s work might help us as we struggle between the positions which call for the pulling down of statues and those calling for reform and education, and others wanting, please God, for everything to just be left be, to be conserved, and guarded. This goes also for our monumental borders.

That the UK Government is presently drafting and passing laws pertaining to statues makes this moment of additional significance.

The National:

Relations between Scotland and ­Malawi stretch over more than a century and are anything but free of shame. From David Livingstone and the missionary work which saw Scotland sending its 19th ­century Christian faithful to “convert the natives” joining a largely brutal colonial and cultural project of the British Empire, how a country regards itself when faced with its past is a mark of its maturity.

Kambalu’s entry shows a restaging of a photograph of two men, highly conventional, in suits, hats, ties, hands behind backs, chins up. It’s a very conservative looking modern statue, on the face of it. Not unlike the one of Donald Dewar in Buchanan Street in Glasgow. On the face of it, it’s hard to see what those who believe dead men should be on plinths would object to.

THE dominant Malawian figure is the Rev John Chilembwe, the other a European missionary, John Chorley, is life-sized.

Chilembwe was a ­Baptist pastor who ­attended a Church of Scotland Mission in Malawi before travelling to the United States for his education in the Virginia Theological Seminary at Lynchburg.

In the US he was influenced by African American churches and radical figures such as abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

He returned to Nyasaland, now ­Malawi, emphasising education and dignity for the people and he took up the cause of local and migrant African labourers on plantations subject to labour exploitation, then as now, earning the opprobrium of the Colonial and powerful rulers.

As the conflict caused by the injustices deepened, Chilembwe became increasingly revolutionary in word and in deed, erecting a church on the estate land of the capitalist colonial Scot, Alexander Livingstone Bruce, defying the colonial masters by wearing a hat in public – forbidden in front of white people – and actively ­opposing the view of the land owners like Bruce who believed educated Africans had no place in colonial order.

Chilembwe’s gospel and politics of the dignity of the people met with the ­converse, the belief in people as ­chattels, counted, at the time, in parts of the ­Empire, as cattle.

In 1915, with his church at the heart of protest and revolt, Chilembwe rebelled, leading a revolt against the colonisers’ systems of forced labour and racial discrimination, insisting on the sovereignty of the individual. In so doing he was also embodying the spirit of his own Chewa society.

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The rebellion was unsuccessful. Chilembwe was shot and killed, and ­other rebels executed by the British, and his church was pulled down.

The moment of action Kambalu has ­chosen is from a photograph of ­Chilembwe from 1914, as the revolt was brewing. Kambalu has not chosen a ­moment of Christian brotherhood and meek ­mildness, but of revolt, of an ­insistence on justice against oppression. On the face of Chilembwe in Kambalu’s ­maquette is decision, dignity and the look the eyes get when there is no turning back from what may well be tragic action. Kambalu says of his work:

A close up of Reverend John Chilembwe (1871-1915) the critical question I have proposed for Fourth Plinth on Trafalgar Square. Chilembwe was the first Pan-Africanist to die resisting colonialism in the early 20th century. He quietly inspired figures of black liberation such as Marcus Garvey and WEB Du Bois.

There is no statue to Chilembwe, this now iconic figure, in Malawi. The shortlisting itself of Kambula’s work is an acknowledgement of the interrelationship between colonial history and this important figure. But it is also much more than this.

Here we have a Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University, and Fellow of ­Magdalen College, both roles ­representing the height of the establishment in the UK, offering his own revolt. A contemporary Malawian artist, who wrote an acclaimed autobiographical novel, The Jive Talker: Or How To Get A British Passport, playfully, and defiantly, dares to jive forward, and propose seemingly innocuous-aesthetically almost “traditional-looking” statues which conjure a shameful, yet “violently successful” part of the history of the British Empire, on a Plinth, in ­Trafalgar Square. The contemporary ­artist here is a pretender indeed.

In spirit, Antelope – the shortlisted piece – is not unlike the Duke of Welly in Glasgow, outside the Gallery of Modern Art – with rebel street artists and revelling Glasgwegian jive-talkers all defiantly insisting on the absolute need for a traffic cone to clown-up the Duke.

The endless repetition of the traffic cone trope refuses to allow the brutality of war to be glorified. It is mocked.

In response, Kambalu’s insurrectionist is brought back from the dead to stand in quiet judgement, in the company of his white supporter, and to tell a different ­story, one which Scotland also strives, clumsily as it decolonises too, to tell of itself.

Since Jack McConnell signed a ­partnership agreement and ushered in a new era in Scottish-Malawi relations a model of international development and relationships have been established. These all too often gloss over the brutality of colonial rule and glorify white saviours with their meals and their deals.

Real development is an art. It involves messy, unresolvable relationships, money and most of all dignity, offered in all ­directions. It endures when it begins to be based on reciprocity – or “partnership” in the passing jargon.

Whilst there have been far more trips to Malawi from Scottish Schools, ­Universities, NGOs, communities and parishes, youth groups and cultural ­organisations than have been able ­return – not least thanks to the Home Office’s ­appalling record in granting visas – it is true that reciprocity is part of the ­maturing of the work of development.

Whilst emergency humanitarian aid is one thing, the work of building a peace, founded on cultural justice is a wider task. It requires the hard work of ­transforming old sores, past injustices, acknowledgement of the imperfections of ancestors and the courage to shine a light on shameful practices of, for instance, labour relations and land ownership. And it ­involves contemporary relationships with people and with objects. Ones which ­unsettle but which stay the course and come out the other side.

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International development which acts in these ways will not be trapped into the frankly insane logic that had led to the cuts to overseas development assistance. My own research projects have been subject to 70% cuts, just as the UK Government pretends that women and girls and peace-making, in situations of protracted conflict, is significant.

My work, based on reciprocal models of international development, fully expects the practices of scholars, artists and those based in privileged contexts to have to listen to hard truths from our peers in and from low to middle income countries about the many ways our scholarship and preferences for certain fashions enacts the same kinds of logics which led to the shooting of Africans like Chilembwe for wearing hats in the presence of Europeans, in the past.

What I hear Kambalu’s work saying is this:

Encounter this gaze, this ghost.

Be haunted by this look of defiance.

Notice yourself in the life-size European by his side, in his company, part of his rebellion, but awkward, out of place.

Know the good, the bad and the ugly here.

And more than anything else neither ­lionise nor diminish the actions of this ­human – and of those who act – listen and hear what they are saying to you about land reform and labour relations, tenants’ rights and evictions in Scotland, about the need for a Church to come to its knees and see the sovereignty of those whose cultures it stole in its unequivocal missionary zeal, and to equally affirm its work for justice and reparative justice.

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, embedded in Chilembwe’s own education, might want to lean in.

IN any look back at history there is a danger of presentism – that is a danger of applying the standards of the present to the circumstances of the past. But that is no excuse for a clear-sighted look back in order to look forward, learn, do justice. It’s also no excuse for not listening to what someone who grew up in the long shadow of our Empire, and during the AIDS pandemic, might want express by freezing a moment from this history, on the Fourth Plinth in London. Not least as Scotland was part of shaping that voice and its resistance.

One response from the Twitterati: ­“Antelope is by far the best option out of the 6 but I cannot pretend that it’s what I would want there.”

And there we have, in a nutshell, the power of contemporary art at the height of its not inconsiderable powers, to ­provoke, to needle the powerful into knowing their own discomfort, that their power will pass and justice will have a say in who we are, in what we have done, and in the kind of nation we might aspire to be.

The six finalists for the Fourth Plinth are listed here and are all worth contemplation.

You can vote for your preference here:

Alison Phipps is UNESCO Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts at the University of Glasgow.