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With his bold, sumptuous paintings, Michael Armitage is intent on challenging colonial assumptions about East Africa and revealing the region’s complexities. “Sex, poverty and dictators: if you are talking about this part of the world, you always come up against those stereotypes and that’s been very difficult … For me, it’s been important to use an exotic language but show that it is also a form of dumbing down.” By Neha Kale.

Artist Michael Armitage

Michael Armitage.
Credit: Anna Kučera

For Michael Armitage, the ordinary and the extraordinary aren’t clear-cut propositions. They’re a consequence of your vantage on the world. The acclaimed painter grew up in Nairobi, a city where skyscrapers and houses are encircled by open grass plains. Sometimes, he’d have animal visitors. These were the kind of instances, he says, that fired his creativity.

“The mother of my close friend was an artist and she used to tell us stories and folklore from her people and it brought the dark, forested place we lived in to life,” says Armitage, who’s warm and thoughtful with a manner that’s refreshingly unguarded, even a little earnest. He speaks slowly and deliberately in an accent that’s ever-so-slightly musical – the occasional dropped consonant giving way to a lilting cadence. “When I was in prep school, a pride of lions once walked into our playing pit. That was a one-off. But it was also the everyday and I think anywhere where there is a sense of unease or threat is very good for the imagination.” He flashes a broad grin. “Now, I’d definitely prefer to be back in Nairobi, but when I was young, I used to love visiting my grandparents in the UK. As a child, it used to feel exotic to me.”

Armitage, 35, is in Sydney to open The Promised Land, curated by Natasha Bullock, a suite of 10 paintings on show at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) until September 22. It’s the first time he’s exhibited in Australia. Before our interview, I spot him, a striking figure in charcoal overcoat and navy trousers, circling the MCA’s ground-floor gallery. “There’s something very embarrassing about having all your mistakes on the wall – I’d rather go and hide,” he later tells me, laughing. This self-deprecation is understandable and distinctly British – Armitage keeps his studio in London – but it’s also completely unwarranted. Armitage is represented by White Cube, founded by legendary art dealer Jay Jopling and home to Gilbert & George, Tracey Emin and Antony Gormley.

His works, which are made on traditional Ugandan bark cloth called lubugo, render scenes of East African life with a sweeping, painterly virtuosity. Sometimes, the human collides with the bestial. Take Leopard Print Seducer (2016), a baboon wearing a leopard-print bikini, done in a palette of deep green and Fanta orange. Elsewhere, the mythic shares space with the modern, as in the case of Antigone (2018), which reimagines Oedipus’s daughter as a contemporary East African woman, legs splayed and eyes blazing.

The mass protests that accompanied the 2017 Kenyan elections are transformed into The Promised Land (2019), a swirling, sumptuous panorama peopled by figures that kneel, flee and stare into the distance. The composition is haunted by the greats of Western painting: Paul Gauguin, Sigmar Polke, Francisco Goya. The cumulative effect is sensorial rather than cerebral, like listening to a tone poem through a great set of speakers or catching a vista that instantly expands your world view.

“I think you can be moved by something without having an elaborate backstory,” he says. “As a student, one of the most memorable exhibitions I have ever seen was El Greco at the National Gallery and, because I hate reading labels, it was more interesting for me to look at the person that was represented and relate to that. At the Slade [School of Fine Art], I had an extraordinary tutor, Phyllida Barlow, who could talk straight to the heart of anything. [She taught me] that if painting has a meaning, it’s what the person standing in front of it feels.”

 

Armitage was born in Nairobi in 1984, the son of an English father who worked as an accountant and a Kenyan mother who ran a clothing store. “I felt very lucky to have grown up in two cultures, but back then I didn’t really understand how that was different from friends who were from Kenyan families or expat families,” he says. He started drawing as a six-year-old. At 10, a teacher introduced him to oil paint. The impulse to make art, he says, was like the decision to start eating: “It was just how I processed things.”

Armitage originally planned to study architecture, thanks to pragmatic advice from his parents. Instead, he enrolled in a foundation course at the Byam Shaw School of Art, now part of Central Saint Martins. “It was literally the only art school that was taking late applicants,” he says with a grin. This led to a bachelor of arts at the Slade, an institution that counts painter Cecily Brown and sculptor Rachel Whiteread as alumni. His time there was conflicted.

“The Slade was amazing for building up confidence,” says Armitage, who later enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools, graduating in 2010. “Because the stuff I was interested in was always [rooted in] a different culture, I wasn’t able to talk to people about specific ideas. It made me reflect on the impact of language and how, in a sense, sociopolitical issues can be superficial. But you could talk about something deeper and much more familiar.”

The Royal Academy, he says, was “hard and tedious”. His work was subject to daily interrogation. For a while, he stopped painting altogether and started experimenting with other materials.

“The things I made at the end of the Slade were very much within a language that was familiar to East Africa because I was thinking of my work in relation to that history,” he says. “But I also had to be honest about the situation that I was in in London, and there were certain things that were lost. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of being exotic but not self-reflective.”

Armitage yearned to find a form of expression that wasn’t “caught between two worlds”, as the lazy trope goes, but of two worlds. Expansive enough to accommodate an artistic consciousness shaped by Western painters such as Goya and Titian yet specific enough to reflect the Modernist language conceived by the likes of Sane Wadu and Jak Katarikawe, artists who lent life in East Africa the richness and substance that was missing from art history. In 2010, while browsing a Nairobi tourist stall, he came across lubugo, a cloth made from the bark of the native mutuba tree. The material, which the Baganda people of Uganda have long used in ritual ceremonies and to embalm bodies, turned out to be his breakthrough.

“Before [lubugo] I used to make paintings that were quite gestural, with thick paint, but because of the nature of the cloth’s surface and irregularities, I could no longer do that because it interrupts the mark to such a degree,” says Armitage, who stretches the cloth over canvas in his studio and has recently taken to making his own tears, slashes and stitches to alter the topography of his work. “It’s moved from being the surface of the painting to the body, and the more work I make, the more integral it becomes.”

The work that changed his trajectory was Peace Coma (2014), in which a snake slithers across an ochre and olive landscape. The piece takes cues from Peter Doig, the Scottish figurative painter who paints lush, tropical landscapes that ripple with secret tensions.

“I was on Trinidad on holiday and I walked onto a beach and was like, jeez, this is literally a Doig painting – and then I realised, that is the way you make a painting of a place in this day and age, you just paint the damn place,” he says, laughing. “I thought about the snake. And then I stretched the bark cloth and treated it like a normal canvas. Seeing the visual language and the cloth together was my eureka moment.”

 

These days, the stars of figurative painting are prone to making work that sparks lightning-rod debates in the art world. Take Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, the 2016 portrait of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old boy lynched by white men in 1950s Mississippi. Although Armitage sometimes draws from news reports and social media, he isn’t interested in assuming easy moral positions – or extending them to the viewer. His paintings can take years to make, layers of paint applied and rubbed away so that forms and shapes swim to the surface the longer you look at them. They often present ambiguous narratives woven out of memories, mythologies and experiences lifted from the artist’s daily life.

Kampala Suburb (2014) features two men kissing, bodies intertwined in the style of an Egyptian hieroglyph while a shadowy figure observes them through a window. The painting, which was made after a sister’s friend inquired about gay bars in Nairobi, references Kenya’s draconian anti-gay laws. But its pockmarked surface disrupts the smoothness of this reading, as well as the ready-made superiority of the Western position. The country’s anti-homosexuality legislation, after all, was introduced by the British when they colonised East Africa in the late 19th century. They are also part of the legacies of Empire the region grapples with today.

“For me, to sit and say that something is right or wrong is really not interesting,” says Armitage, who, alongside paintings, showed a suite of intricate ink studies on paper as part of this year’s Venice Biennale. “There are plenty of aspects of life that behave in that way but there’s something that is ambiguous about a painting – a still, silent image that does nothing but sit there. Generally, my position is always changing. If you can represent a situation without giving a history and outcome, it feels truer to life.”

For Armitage, a good painting is one in which he feels personally implicated. There needs to be something at risk. He made the 2015 work #mydressmychoice after receiving a viral video that shows a woman being attacked at a Nairobi bus stop for wearing a miniskirt. The work casts the central figure as Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, an archetype of feminine beauty that’s also the original handbook for the objectification of the female body. These power dynamics are part of a continuum in which artist and audience are both complicit.

Elsewhere, Armitage challenges the notion of Africa, upheld by 19th-century painters such as Paul Gauguin, who had a long-time fascination with the region, as the domain of seductive, exotic women. Nasema Nawe (2016) sees a group of African women engaged in baikoko, a sexually charged dance that was outlawed in Tanzania in 2015. Onlookers gather around the scene in the manner of Gauguin’s 1888 painting Vision after the Sermon. But here these writhing bodies refract our own assumptions about the agency of the figures and, by extension, the humanity of East Africans at large.

“The state started policing baikoko and it went underground but [the dance] was originally performed by women for women before weddings, so mothers could choose their prospective daughter-in-laws,” says Armitage. “I was recently in Leipzig, Germany, and the only images I saw of Africans were of [sex workers] and begging children. Sex, poverty and dictators: if you are talking about this part of the world, you always come up against those stereotypes and that’s been very difficult. Something like baikoko has this phenomenal history and cultural relevance. For me, it’s been important to use an exotic language but show that it is also a form of dumbing down something that’s extraordinarily deep and complex.”

Over the past few years, Armitage has turned his gaze to the rhythms of Kenyan life under the country’s shifting political climate. The Flaying of Marsyas (2017), which showed as part of The Chapel, Armitage’s 2017 exhibition at the South London Gallery, uses its namesake Titian painting to show the universal nature of human violence. The Fourth Estate (2017), which occupies a front wall at the MCA, was inspired by a rally at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Men sat in trees to protest in favour of opposition leader Raila Odinga, a scene Armitage says could have been plucked out of Goya. “There were rioting bodies and figures everywhere and the scene was quite literally a re-creation of Goya’s witches in a tree.” But these works aren’t, as many assume, straightforward records: they mess with our sense of reality, our understanding of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the everyday and the mythic.

“In Africa, you don’t see violence on a daily basis, you see a fantastic number of problems and there are points at which things may become violent just like anywhere else,” he says. “For me, it’s most important to show that the day-to-day lives of people in this part of the world is a heroic endeavour. It is epic.”

His hazel eyes take on a faraway expression. “But [a painting] can mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 13, 2019 as "True colours". Subscribe here.

Neha Kale
is a Sydney-based writer and editor-at-large of VAULT magazine.