‘Everything in Oxford was built with dodgy money’ – iconoclastic professor and fourth plinth artist Samson Kambalu | Sculpture

Samson Kambalu’s solution to running late for an interview is characteristically swashbuckling: he drives his flash car up on to the pavement outside the front gates of an ancient Oxford college, fishes me out of the porter’s lodge and screeches off to the car park round the back. He’s carrying a large bunch of keys with which, like a dandified Hagrid, he unlocks the secrets of the Potterian world in which he has found himself, as associate professor of fine art at Ruskin College and fellow of Magdalen.

The problem with Oxford’s much contested statue of Cecil Rhodes, he tells me, as we negotiate a winding staircase up to the senior common room, stopping off en route to pick up a glass of wine, is not that he was a particularly villainous British imperialist. “He was a nobody,” says Kambalu, “who hit upon a diamond mine in southern Africa and didn’t know what to do with this money. The only problem was lack of taste, vulgarity. Everything in Oxford was built with dodgy money. If the sculpture was good, no one would have noticed it. But because it’s not, Rhodes has become the bogeyman.”

To underline his point, he waves towards a 19th-century painting of a slave plantation in Brazil that takes pride of place 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. “Perhaps I should complain.”

On Wednesday, Kambalu will become the 14th artist to unveil a work on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. In marked contrast to his flamboyant persona, it’s a restrained piece, which holds its meaning close. It’s based on a 1914 photograph he discovered in an Oxford colonial archive of two men posing outside a newly opened church in Nyasaland, now Malawi. He distorts the scale, so that the 5.5 metre figure of Baptist preacher and pan-Africanist John Chilembwe towers above European missionary John Chorley.

‘It’s a difficult sculpture’ … a model of Antelope by Kambalu, which references the hat-ban era.
‘It’s a difficult sculpture’ … a model of Antelope by Kambalu, which references the hat-ban era. Photograph: Matthew Childs/Reuters

So far, so clear: Chilembwe was a giant of a man who was killed – and his church razed – a year after the photograph was taken, for leading a popular uprising against British rule. But why is the statue titled Antelope? Part of the reason lies in the symbolism of the hat Chilembwe is wearing, at a time when Africans weren’t allowed to wear one at all in the presence of their colonial masters. Kambalu, who is never seen out and about without a fedora or a panama, has placed it high on the preacher’s head, so that its top rises in two peaks. Like antelope horns, he says.

It’s a reference to the Nyau masking tradition that has played a central part in the Malawian artist’s work, keeping him close to the matrilineal Chewa people from whom his family came. The antelope, he explains, has always represented the womb, though not necessarily in the biological sense. “It’s the most generous animal in the bush, recklessly, stupidly generous: it gives meat to every other creature.” So, contrary to what passersby will think they’re seeing, this isn’t just a portrait of two stiffly posed men. He makes no apology for this: “I’m an artist’s artist. Antelope is a difficult sculpture. You have to think about it.”

Further insights into the rich mythology that underpins his work stream out of his cheekily titled memoir The Jive Talker, or How to Get a British Passport, which has just been reissued with a new preface 14 years after its original publication. The Jive Talker was the work that was the making of him, while also driving him to the brink of mental collapse. After it flopped in hardback despite good reviews, the book’s UK publisher cancelled the paperback, throwing him into penury and despair. He was rescued by its enthusiastic reception in Germany, which kept him on tour for the next four years.

The weight of learning … New Liberia, at Modern Art Oxford, featured elephants made of scholars’ gowns.
The weight of learning … New Liberia, at Modern Art Oxford, featured elephants made of scholars’ gowns. Photograph: Mark Blower

The Jive Talker was his father, a doctor who fell on hard times but continued to wear a three-piece suit and keep a well-stocked bookcase, 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, regarded himself as an artist from the age of seven. He graduated from an elite private school to the University of Malawi where, while messing about with a volleyball one day, he had the brainwave of plastering it with pages from the Bible, in a back-handed homage to his devoutly Catholic mother. Four hundred of his “holy balls” – free for anyone to kick around – would become his “gift” to the Venice Biennale in 2015. The African tradition of gifting is another important part of his credo.

Both his parents died of Aids, along with other members of his family, though Kambalu himself was young enough to avoid the pandemic that swept southern Africa in his childhood. “Basically,” he says, “if you were sexually active in the 70s or 80s, you were dead in Africa, because there was no information.” He moved to Britain after meeting his wife, Susan, a Scottish development worker, signing up first for a fine art MA at Nottingham Trent University, and then for a PhD at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London.

For years afterwards, he says, he felt he was banging his head against a brick wall. “I was in Britain a long time and it was impossible to get a show as an immigrant African. It was the preserve of white male artists.” His discovery of the reach of the internet was one of two breakthroughs he made on his four-year German odyssey. The other, he says, was growing a beard. “I loved it. It’s not so much that I looked better, but I just vibed with it. As a child I never recognised myself in photographs, so it was a crucial moment. It was what made me a performer.”

In idle moments on the road, he started to post one-minute films of himself clowning around on a then-new channel called YouTube. Initially, they were a way of keeping in touch with his family, but they also distracted him from his depression. “In my imagination, through the magical medium of film, I found myself walking on water, going through walls,” he writes in his memoir. He formulated a manifesto and named it his Nyau Cinema. Quirky and funny, the films were spotted by a South African gallerist, who gave him a solo show, 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, underlining his continuing devotion to the gift, and to the anti-capitalist philosophy of situationist art, which hasn’t been without its challenges. There was a career-threatening moment when he was sued for copyright infringement over one of his Venice installations, which used images from a Yale archive of the work of the Italian situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti. Fortunately, the judge saw the situationist side, and ruled in his favour.

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

In his relationship with Oxford, Kambalu pulls off the double act of being the iconoclast who makes serious art, furnishing a local exhibition with an installation of elephants made from scholars’ gowns, while ensuring that one of his panama hats hangs among the robes outside the senior common room. It’s no longer necessary, he says, to have the deference of his father’s generation. He enjoys his life in the university, but also thinks it’s ridiculously outdated, recalling a ceremony he recently attended: “At the end, we’re all queueing for this little bar. And I was like, ‘God. All these geniuses and nobody had the logic to think that they’d need a bigger bar.’”

But, he then concedes, it’s all a mask. While the bookshelves in his study playfully hold nothing but theatrical props – assorted wigs, a pair of boxing gloves – his commitment to teaching is demonstrated by the loan of his very desirable studio, in a cottage in the college grounds once occupied by Dylan Thomas, to a second-year student who makes big paintings and “is trying to find his voice”.

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

As for the fourth plinth commission, he says: “I’m very proud of it. I always say that 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 high street in search of a cigar.