Michael Armitage is one of today’s most acclaimed young English artists, the only problem is that he’s Kenyan. Born in Nairobi in 1984, Armitage attended boarding school in England, and went on to have an impeccable English art education at the Slade School of Art and the Royal Academy. Yet as so often happens, the longer he studied in London the more conscious he became of his origins. Armitage’s work is a product of the creative tensions that arise when you spend 20 years living in one country while dreaming of another.
Having been taken up by über gallery, White Cube, the artist’s profile is rising with alarming speed. He has a double solo exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale, and another survey in Turin. The latter show, The Promised Land, was put together in association with Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, where it runs from 28 June – 22 Sept. The Promised Land features nine pictures inspired by a visit to the last major Opposition rally before the controversial Kenyan elections of 2017.
The artist explains: “When I went to this rally I was thinking about doing something on the power dynamic between the supporters and the leader, but it turned out to be a much stranger event than I’d expected. There were people in clown outfits holding up slogans, one had a picture of Leonardo’s Last Supper with the Opposition Leader included. It was really effective and dark, with a strong performative element. So I started thinking about the performance of protest and support, and the paintings ended up being more about political problems and change within Kenyan society.”
If you think this sounds like another example of a contemporary artist dealing with ‘issues’ in a politically correct manner, you’re in for a surprise. Armitage’s paintings are never ideologically motivated, never simply llustrations of an idea. There is a lot of social content but his approach is painterly and allusive. He believes “painting is more complicated than a slogan” and cites Goya as his main inspiration: “Politics was an integral part of his work, but often you can’t pin down exactly what he meant.”
One sees this ambiguity in an Armitage painting such as Leopard Print Seducer(2016), which features an ape wearing a leopard skin bikini. It’s as surreal and disturbing as one of Goya’s witches, and just as resistant to interpretation.
In other pictures Armitage will put a new twist on images from western art history, such as Gauguin’s Vision after the sermon (Jacob wrestling with the angel) (1888), which becomes a vision of African women doing the Baikoko, an erotic dance that has regularly been banned in Africa. Armitage was interested in the way such a popular expression of sexual exuberance was perceived as an implicit threat to social order and morality.
This same ‘morality’ has justified a series of assaults on East African women who have been stripped and molested in public places by gangs of men that objected to their ‘immoral’ choice of clothing, such as a mini skirt. These assaults have led to a feminist social media counter-attack called #mydressmychoice. Armitage borrows the title for a painting of 2015 which shows a naked black woman in a pose suggestive of Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus. It’s only when we look at the top of the frame that we see her assailants in the form of rows of male feet. It’s also the anonymous male audience for all those voluptuous nudes that artists have painted throughout the centuries.
Armitage feels compelled to make paintings about mob violence, misogyny and homophobia in Africa partly because he believes the attitudes that fuel such beliefs and activities are fundamentally foreign to Kenya. “A lot of these ideas became entrenched in the 1970s and 80s,” he argues, “when a certain type of American Baptist preacher arrived as a missionary. The preachers had a very corrupting influence which was at odds with the way a lot of the country thought beforehand. I’m not saying the problem is Christianity per se, it’s really quite specific to this type of missionary.”
This is one of the less considered legacies of colonialism – the introduction of a more stringent moral code that has disastrous consequences in a developing country. One might compare it to those species of animal or plant imported for benign purposes that wreak havoc on the local environment. Neither should we believe that the process of fuelling hatred through holy rhetoric is unique to Kenya.
Armitage has a related concern about what happens when a country goes along with an exoticising narrative imposed by another, more powerful culture. It’s not just the kitsch produced by tourism, but a willingness to reshape one’s behaviour and thinking for economic or ideological reasons. “It’s very corrosive,” he says. “There’s a point at which the performance of a culture for somebody else becomes a parody of itself.”
It’s too easy for the western world to write off an African country as a basket case and assume an implicit superiority. As an artist born to mixed-race parents, who is both Kenyan and English, Armitage was frustrated by the atttudes of his tutors at art school who looked down his efforts to draw on his African heritage.
“I found it quite difficult at art school,” he recalls, “because all the things I wanted to talk about were not from England. It became obvious to me that the language of the paintings needed to be really quite specific, so I’d been making works with flat colour and a much coarser line, but such things were seen as being ‘naïve’, when I was really trying to work within a particular history.”
“I’d continually come up against comments like: ‘You should read Heart of Darkness.’ Or ‘people don’t think like that anymore’.. Stuff like that, literally tutorial after tutorial.”
“This type of criticism was coming from a generation of artists who were associated with the YBAs [the so-called Young British Artists, eg. Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin], and the more cynical types of work that were being made in the 80s and 90s. I had quite a visceral reaction to that kind of thinking. I was much more interested in the way that Congolese musicians thought and talked about music, where there was a sense of social responsibilty but that didn’t mean their work wasn’t progressive and beautiful. I was also impressed by how broad an area they stole from.”
“I was attracted to that way of thinking rather than the idea of making clean, conceptual work that was relatively detached. I thought then, and still think, about showing in Kenya and making paintings that someone might identify with if they just walked in off the streets.”
To emphasise the African nature of his work, Armitage paints all his pictures on a kind of bark cloth taken from the Lugubo tree of Uganda. It’s a surface that seems to actively resist painting, but for the artist it has come to represent the ‘fabric’ of Africa in more ways than one.
“I understand now why people have always painted on flat surfaces,” he says. “The Lugubo cloth is really rough. There are holes in it, there are ridges, and there are stitches where it’s been repaired by the guys who made it. There are so many things it doesn’t allow. For example if you tried to use thick paint you couldn’t lay in a single brushstroke, you have to thin it down quite a lot. But things like that have become very important as to how the paintings are made. I think I chose this material precisely because it suggests a lot of problems… like those conversations about Heart of Darkness, and the implications of that sort of thinking on East African culture.”
Armitage’s hero may be Goya, but his paintings have been compared to those of Gauguin, Bonnard, and among contemporaries, Peter Doig. There is an amorphous quality in his imagery that echoes his own free-form attitude toward inspiration and subject matter, meaning that he is just as likely to draw on a Twitter feed or a video clip as on a painting by Titian or Manet. He also draws continually from life, with some of his most striking pictures coming from actual experience. Necklacing (2018) for instance, which shows a standing figure with a tire around his neck, comes from a real incident. When he was too young to understand what was going on, he saw a man with a tire around his neck being pursued by an angry mob. It was only later that he understood he had witnessed a gruesome vigilante murder in the making.
“When you’re painting,” he says, “you take whatever help you can get”. What’s impressive is how Armitage is able to work with such disparate sources and create works that defy the cynicism that characterises many of the biggest names (and price-tags) in contemporary art. He comes across as a genuine humanist – a thinker and a man of conscience, formed by his first-hand experience of two different cultures. If there’s a future for painting in an age of market fundamentalism one might hope that it looks like this.
Published in Artist Profile 47, May 2019