‘Everything in Oxford was built with elusive money’ – hardcore professor and fourth artist Samson Campalo | sculpture

sAmson Campalo’s solution to being late in an interview was characteristically swaying: His flash drives to the curb outside the front gates of Old Oxford College, pulls me out of the porter’s inn and shouts into the parking lot around the back. He holds a plethora of keys which, like the polite Hagrid, reveals the secrets of the pottery world in which he found himself, as Associate Professor of Fine Arts at Ruskin College and colleague Magdalene.

The problem with the highly contested Oxford statue Cecil RhodesHe told me, as we negotiate the winding staircase up to a large common room, stopping on our way to pick up a glass of wine, not that he was a particularly vile British imperialist. It was no one, says Campalo, he struck a diamond mine in South Africa and didn’t know what to do with the money. The only problem was a lack of taste and vulgarity. Everything in Oxford was built with dodgy money. If the carving was good, no one would notice. But because Not so, Rhodes became the bogeyman.”

To underscore his point, he waves toward a 19th-century painting of a slave plantation in Brazil that occupies center stage over a fireplace in the Duns Retreat. “If my students saw it, they would definitely ask for it to be removed, but they can’t because it’s here.” Laugh. “Maybe I should complain.”

On Wednesday, he will become Campalo 14th artist to unveil work on 4th plinth in Trafalgar Square. In stark contrast to his sparkling personality, it is a restrained piece, soon carrying its meaning. It is based on a 1914 photograph he discovered in the Oxford colonial archives of two men standing in front of a newly opened church in Nyasaland, now Malawi. It distorts the scale, so the figure is 5.5 meters for a Pan-African Baptist preacher John Chimpoy European missionary towers above John Corley.

“It’s a tough statue” … an antelope model for Campalo, which refers to the era of the hat. Photograph: Matthew Childs/Reuters

So far, it’s been pretty clear: Chelmboy was a giant of a man who was murdered – and his church destroyed – a year after the photo was taken, for leading a popular uprising against British rule. But why is the statue called antelope? Part of the reason lies in the symbolism of the hat worn by the Chilmboy, at a time when Africans were not allowed to wear one at all in the presence of their colonial masters. Kambalu, never seen outside without a fedora or panama, placed it high on the preacher’s head, so that its top rises to two peaks. Like antelope horns, he says.

It is an allusion to the tradition of nyao concealment which played a major role in the work of the Malay artist, bringing him close to matriarchy. chiwa people From whom his family came. He explains that the antelope has always represented the uterus, though not necessarily in a biological sense. “He is the most generous animal in the bush, recklessly, and stupidly generous: he gives meat to every other creature.” So, contrary to what passers-by think they see, this is not just a picture of two men in a strict pose. He did not apologize for this: “I am an artist. Antelope is a tough statue. You have to think about it.”

More insights into the rich legends that underpin the flow of his works from his delicately titled memoirs The Jive Talker, or How to get a British passport, which was recently reissued with a new preface 14 years after its original publication. Jive Talker was the job of his making, while also pushing him to the brink of a mental breakdown. After it slipped into a hardcover despite good reviews, the book’s UK publisher scrapped the paperback, plunging him into poverty and desperation. He was saved by the enthusiastic reception in Germany, which kept him on tour for the next four years.

The weight of learning... New Liberia, in Modern Art Oxford, featured elephants made from scholars' robes.
The weight of learning… New Liberia, in Modern Art Oxford, featured elephants made from scholars’ robes. Photo: Mark Blower

His father was Jive Talker, a doctor who had hard times but continued to wear a three-piece suit and keep a well-stocked bookcase, while developing the habit of waking his eight children in the middle of the night to talk. them with beer philosophy lectures. Samson, the fifth child, considers himself an artist since the age of seven. A graduate of an elite private school at the University of Malawi where he once fiddled with volleyball, he had the brilliant idea of ​​dressing it up with pages from the Bible, in honor of his devout Catholic mother. Four hundred “holy balls” – free to anyone who kicks them – will become his “gift” to the Venice Biennale in 2015. The African gifting tradition is another important part of his faith.

His parents died of AIDS, along with other members of his family, although Campalo himself was young enough to avoid the epidemic that swept South Africa in his childhood. “Essentially, if you were sexually active in the ’70s or ’80s, you’re dead in Africa, because there was no information,” he says. He moved to Britain after meeting his wife Susan, a Scottish development worker, signing up first for a master’s degree in fine arts at Nottingham Trent University and then for a doctorate at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London.

He says he felt for years afterward that he was hitting his head against a brick wall. “I was in Britain for a long time and it was impossible to get a show as an African immigrant. It was the preserve of white male artists.” His discovery of internet access was one of two achievements of his four-year German journey. The other, he says, was growing out a beard. “I loved it. I didn’t look much better, but I got along with it. As a kid I never really recognized myself in pictures, so it was a defining moment. It was what made me a performer.”

In his idle moments on the road, he started posting minute-long films about himself trolling a new channel called YouTube. At first, they were a way to keep in touch with his family, but they also distracted him from his depression. He wrote in his diary: “In my imagination, by the magical medium of the film, I found myself walking on water, passing through walls.” He drafted a statement and called it new cinema. Weird and funny, these films were spotted by a South African gallery maker, who gave him a solo show, which led to his being invited to the Venice Biennale.

Many of his films – even some that have been sold to collectors – are. It’s still free online, confirming his continued devotion to the gift, and the anti-capitalist philosophy of positivist art, which was not without challenges. There was a career-threatening moment when he was sued for copyright infringement on one of his facilities in Venice, which Images used are from the Yale Archive The work of the Italian positivist Gianfranco Sanguinetti. Fortunately the judge saw the endowment side and ruled in his favour.

Idle Moments... Still a picture of Moses (the Burning Bush) from 2015.
Idle Moments… Still a picture of Moses (the Burning Bush) from 2015. Photo: Courtesy of Kate McGarry and the artist

In his relationship with Oxford, Campalo performs the double act of being an icon warrior who makes serious art and furniture local gallery Installing elephants made of scholars’ cloaks, making sure that one of his Panama hats hangs among the robes outside the seniors’ room. It was no longer necessary, he says, for him to respect his father’s generation. He’s enjoying his life in college, but he also thinks it’s ridiculously outdated, remembering a party he attended recently: “In the end, we’re all in line to get that little bar. And I was like, ‘God.’” All of these are geniuses and no one has the logic to believe that they would need a bigger bar. “

But then he admitted that all this is a mask. While the bookshelves in his study contain only theatrical props—varied wig, and a pair of boxing gloves—his commitment to teaching is evidenced by his much-coveted studio loan, in a cottage on the college grounds formerly occupied by Dylan Thomas, for a student a year The second he paints large canvases and “trying to find his voice”.

Campalo currently spends most of his time watching expressionist films and reading poetry – not necessarily in pursuit of art. “I usually make art if I have to. But for me, being an artist is a way of life. It’s a social practice. As a university professor at Oxford I ended up giving up on ambition. In the end, the things people thought I was going to lose by not being ambitious came to me.” “.

As for the Fourth Committee, he says: “I am very proud of it. I always say that I am a British Empire, because I know everything about Britain, but I know its empire too.” With that, he sets out on Main Street in search of a cigar.

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