What’s the importance of erecting the John Chilembwe statue in London? A debate has ensued on social media where some Malawians are sharing different views and this article aims at providing some answers to those questions. In the analysis, some explanations and reasons are given…

By Burnett Munthali

Malawian-born artist Samson Kambalu designed the piece to make Chilembwe much larger than Chorley. His statue stands at five metres towering over that of Chorley’s.

“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,” says the Mayor of London’s website.

Although the monument takes centre stage in London, Chilembwe remains an unknown figure to many.
“Many people may not know who John Chilembwe is. And that is the whole point,” says Kambalu, an associate professor of fine art at the University of Oxford in England.

John Chilembwe statues in London

Kambalu agrees saying he hopes the statue “will start a conversation in Britain that is still coming to reckoning with their colonial past.

“The sculpture brings to light the forgotten histories of the empire, and society is looking for that recognition.”

A statue is a three-dimensional representation usually of a person, animal, or mythical being that is produced by sculpturing, modeling, or casting.

Statues have been produced in many cultures from prehistory to the present; the oldest-known statue dating to about 30,000 years ago. Statues represent many different people and animals, real and mythical. Many statues are placed in public places as public art.

A statue might be considered to be a remembrance of history and culture at face value; however, they are much more than that: “They guide people in their thinking about those facts from the past, how to act in the present, and what possible futures to seek, they also direct people’s views of themselves”

There is a purpose for statues and monuments.
A monument is a type of structure that was explicitly created to commemorate a person or event, or which has become relevant to a social group as a part of their remembrance of historic times or cultural heritage, due to its artistic, historical, political, technical or architectural importance.

Statues symbolize many things. The statue, the character wishes, should serve as a denunciatory symbol, a reminder of where one is bound to end up if they were to choose to pursue such a way of life. Traditionally though, erecting a statue is considered the highest honour that can be given to a person or the idea that the person stood for.

Public art adds enormous value to the cultural, aesthetic and economic vitality of a community. It is now a well-accepted principle of urban design that public art contributes to a community’s identity, fosters community pride and a sense of belonging, and enhances the quality of life for its residents and visitors.

Sculptures play an important role in history. Together with architecture, it was the principal form of monumental religious art which for centuries (c. 400-1800) was the driving force of European civilization. Even today, although continuously evolving, sculpture is still the leading method of expressing and commemorating both historical figures and events.

Taking down a statue or changing a name does not mean removing that person from the history books or diminishing their contributions, but it does mean reshaping and reframing the conversation.

The following statues were controversial.

(1) Statue of King George III (1776)
(2) Haymarket statues (1900)
(3) Sacco and Vanzetti sculpture.
(4) Pioneer Woman’s Statue.
(5) Bust of United States Senator Joseph McCarthy.
(6) The Races of Mankind (1969)
(7) Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.
(8) Captain John Mason and the Pequot massacre (1996)

Statues can be pulled down for some reasons. In the context of racial inequalities around education, health and incarceration, statues glorifying the life of slave owners such as Colston, make many people feel unsafe, unimportant and unwelcome. Tearing down statues is a key symbol of decolonising space and making it more accessible to black and brown people.

However, statues have a purpose. They represent what people in the Past chose to celebrate and memorialise, they do not represent history. Indeed, teaching history is almost never the reason why they are erected.

Instead, statues in public spaces since Antiquity have most typically been used to represent power and authority.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are those of the author not necessarily of The Maravi Post or Editor

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