Michael Armitage at the Royal Academy

The artist Michael Armitage presents his views on Kenyan politics and society, and the legacy of colonialism in phantasmagoric paintings that delight and unnerve.

Guest review by Sarah Mulvey

Featured: Detail from Pathos and the Twilight of the Idle, 2019

Michael Armitage is an artist of mixed heritage; he was born in Nairobi to a British father and a Kenyan mother. This dual identity is fundamental to his art. He has always felt himself an outsider in both the UK and Kenya, but this lack of fixed identity allows him to observe Kenyan society from the outside and to mix Kenyan narratives with European artistic traditions and painting techniques. He studied at the Slade and the Royal Academy Schools and has studios in both Nairobi and London, but his subject matter is always set in Kenya and his paintings are especially targeted at a Kenyan viewer. When he visits Kenya he travels around the country drawing places and people from life and gathering visual information. He raids popular culture and social media, using news articles about events in Kenya and his memories of growing up in Nairobi to inform his ideas. Then he returns to his London studio to produce the final paintings, building up his works over several months or years. He works with oil paint on lugubo bark cloth, a ceremonial material made from the fibrous inner bark of fig trees. His paintings depict Kenyan events, people and landscapes but in a contemporary international style, influenced by artists such as Peter Doig. He creates pastiches of work from the archives of western art history whilst, at the same time, being inspired by contemporary African artists, some of whose work is shown in the exhibition.

I first encountered Michael Armitage’s figurative paintings at the Whitechapel gallery; he was a contributor to the exhibition Radical Figures, 2020. So, it was with high expectations that I anticipated the exhibition of his work, Paradise Edict at the Royal Academy. Armitage’s paintings escape easy interpretations; they can be viewed as ambitious history paintings but, at the same time, as symbolist works that describe imaginary dream worlds, populated with strange bodies. As western viewers, we are distanced from the local events Armitage depicts: the manifestation of politics on the streets of Nairobi, crowds protesting at political rallies, violence erupting, but we respond to the human condition he interrogates. Also, we know, particularly as a British audience, that the histories of Britain and Kenya are entwined.  

Armitage hijacks western art history, quoting from the canon, to question and critique Kenyan society and western views of African countries. His sensuous use of colour and the detournément of compositions by the masters beguile, providing the hook on which to hang our interest. But, if we are seduced by the magic, beauty and complexity of these familiar compositions, he jolts us into confronting pain and violence in the anguished faces emerging from the crowds; individuals highlighted in pockets of space and rendered with photographic realism; awkward presences of estranged characters in defamiliarised environments.

Leopard Print Seducer, oil on lugubo cloth

Meanwhile, he makes fun of the signifiers of western art history; monkeys are enrobed or are laid out decorously like the female nudes that populate the paintings of the masters. In Baboon,  2016, the creature extends its body on the vegetation like a Titian nude, or more specifically in the pose of Manet’s Olympia, a bunch of bananas showing its false modesty.   

He does not present us with an idyllic view of the exotic landscapes and wildlife of Kenya, even though the vegetation in his paintings is lush and the landscapes picturesque, as in a painting of an unspoilt paradise by Gauguin. Rather he gives us an unflinching perspective on social injustice as a legacy of colonialism. The sometimes-violent protests that accompany politics in Kenya, in particular the 2017 presidential election, which is the subject of several paintings, are presented within beautiful, mythical landscapes. Fear and torture, writhing bodies, crowds that gather in the distance, ominously; Armitage’s paintings are full of hidden perils that menace in deceitful ways.

The Paradise Edict, 2019, oil on lugubo cloth

In the painting Paradise Edict, 2019, after which the exhibition is named, limbs that we do not see immediately, emerge from the vegetation when we look closer. We realise that these bodies are being tortured by other figures that meld with the landscape, concealed.

Detail from The Accomplice, 2019, oil on lugubo cloth

In the Accomplice, three men are leaping incongruously over a fire, watched by a hidden onlooker. The uncertainty about what is happening is unsettling. 

As in history paintings of the 19th century Armitage’s paintings are often large-scale with spacious vistas. They immerse the viewer in strange and complex spaces that can be seen as a whole or examined in individual sections as if parts of a collage. Perspectival space and multi-layering of stories are somehow reconciled. What essentially makes Armitage’s paintings so compelling is his ability to knit together disparate styles of painting and ideas. He exploits the graphic potential of paint strokes not just to describe, but to act as expressive, aberrant components within the overall structure.

Detail from Pathos and the Twilight of the Idle, 2019, oil on lugubo cloth

In the bottom right corner of the painting Pathos and the Twilight of the Idle, 2019, a man shouts out, his face contorted in an effort to be heard, his head is painted with thin, economic layers of paint that describes the features with photographic realism. This figure moves within a group of men that are painted realistically. But there are other faces nearby, mask-like, depicted with rudimentary brush strokes, their features partially obliterated by being scrubbed out. In other paintings outlines of faces are rendered in earth reds which suggest auras and which act to highlight focal points.

The Dumb Oracle, 2019, oil on lugubo cloth

In the Dumb Oracle, 2019, the main figure, his face tortured in despair, is brought into focus by a crown of red which is reflected in the light areas of his skin. In other paintings figures are camouflaged into the background, hiding like palimpsests, waiting to be discovered. Matt areas of muted chalky colour are juxtaposed with lyrical expressive gestures of translucent paint; passages of restricted colour next to exuberant saturation. 

Kenya is a place to which Armitage feels connected and about which he is passionate. He includes the work of African artists who have inspired him in one of the rooms in the gallery as a way of promoting the history of African art and as a way of counteracting the exoticizing of African culture. He is enthralled by the beauty of the country but his paintings show a troubling undercurrent that eats away at the notion of paradise. He is not afraid to reveal his thoughts about Kenyan society and how power is manifested and contested through politics, religion and the cultural melange that comes from the interplay of cultures. Paradise Edict is a spellbinding exhibition by an artist of astounding creativity. 

Paradise Edict at the Royal Academy finishes 19 September, 2021

Sarah Mulvey is an art history graduate and has worked in education for over twenty five years, teaching art and photography. She has also written on art and fashion. Her passion is visiting museums, galleries and exhibitions. When not working she tries to find time to draw and paint and to take photos on her strolls in diverse London boroughs.

Image credits: Sarah Mulvey

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