Much like a writer discovers the possibilities – the scope – of language by consuming great literary works, it is difficult for an artist not to look at great painters in pursuit of making the best possible paintings they can, explains acclaimed Kenyan Artist Michael Armitage. This was in response to a question I asked the millennial painter on his technique and the artistic references in his work after my introduction to Accomplice: Michael Armitage, a series of eight oil paintings and preparatory ink drawings created in response to the 2017 Kenyan election rallies, exhibited at the Norval Foundation.
Armitage’s practice, while rooted in East African modernism, acknowledges European masters of the 17th to 19th centuries through his style of painting in layers, which he scrapes and repaints, dexterously interlacing his references through a type of painterly Fanagalo, like a hip-hop artist’s interpolations cross genres and eras. And as the viewer traverses these seemingly exotic, dream-like landscapes, canvases filled with colourful caricatures, there is a sense that something more sinister is at play, exposing the harsh realities of Kenya and the world in general.
“In many ways, the references are consequential of the stuff that I’ve seen and grown up with,” says Armitage. “Art history wasn’t an option when I was growing up [in Nairobi]. The shows I saw, the way of thinking I was exposed to then, the characters and the artists’ work, was all East African and Kenyan.”
As a freshman at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, hailing from “more lively” Africa, Armitage recalls his introduction to the European traditions of painting on a visit to the National Gallery.
“One of my tutors said he was going to introduce us to ‘one of the most extraordinary paintings made by man’. He took our class to see [the Italian Renaissance painter] Titian’s The Death of Actaeongn. And I just thought, ‘This is horrendous, it is dull, the guy can’t paint, the guy can’t draw, the colour is really brown.’ There were other things in the museum which I found interesting but there was a real barrier to classical painting. Then I saw an exhibition by El Greco and that was my way in. His work felt way more familiar to what I knew and this opened the door for me, making it very hard to turn back.”
Another turning point in Armitage’s career was when his now-gallerist Irene Bradbury, from White Cube in London, had been unwell and was in bed reading through “every book under the sun”. She discovered his work in 100 Painters of Tomorrow. Until that point, he had struggled to get anyone to look at his work. “It had maybe been five years, a situation that many artists find themselves in, and it’s unpleasant. I’m lucky a show I’d planned for Nairobi had been cancelled, so I had a lot of work to show her. She offered me a show and from then on its been non-stop.”
Non-stop indeed. Last year’s solo show at MoMA in New York and his inclusion in the Venice Biennale have given him a very different level of visibility. Next, Accomplice moves to Haus der Kunst in Munich. “Then, I have a show alongside Gauguin and a couple of other artists at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek art museum in Copenhagen, followed by a group show at Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
“Paint can be extraordinarily diverse, also very crude, very sophisticated, it can operate in so many different ways. It’s more for that reason, in the service of the painting, that I’m making these other references [to European painters]. However, I’ve never conscientiously set out to bring different cultures together with some grander idea. It’s just about the painting,” Armitage says of his work.
“In the case of The Fourth Estate, with its protesters in a tree, which has been likened to an etching by Goya, that was actually referencing in reverse. I’ve seen guys in trees before. Who hasn’t? But it was only when I was doing a radio interview, and having to describe this scene, that I said, ‘Damn, I feel like I’m describing this etching by Goya from the early 1800s where he has all these witches perched in a tree.’ … If I hadn’t done that interview I’d probably not have clocked that as a potential image that could be interesting … To be honest, if I keep a reference, it’s just a way in.
“The paintings here at Norval are different [to my other works], as they are all based on photographs and actual things that have happened. Although, obviously, the paintings are all fictitious, they are based on the reality of the 2017 rally in Nairobi.
“I went with the crew from the local TV station and the photographer who was there also sent me images from other rallies, including the point at which that rally had turned violent. That also led me to look online to see other news networks for other moments. So, those are more an amalgamation but the heart of the work, like all of my preparatory ink drawings, are from that rally.”
While the majority of his work is produced in his London studio, Armitage says he spends two to four months a year in his Nairobi studio. As an artist with one foot on the continent, does he feel a responsibility as an “African artist” to play commentator, to highlight the socio-political issues of his home and this continent?
“I feel like an African artist as much as I see Goya being an African artist. What I do have is that all my subjects pretty much originate from the part of the world I grew up in, that I feel most indebted to and that I love as a home. So, in that sense, they are African subjects but it’s more about the ‘human condition’, about being here and living … really basic stuff.
“It would be disingenuous to say I don’t feel like I’m an artist who comes from East Africa because I do and my work is based there. But to then be labelled … I don’t know what it lends to the bigger picture … It also seems like a slippery slope if you are going to define yourself by what other people want you to be like.”
The Lebuga bark cloth from Uganda, on which Armitage paints, adds another layer to his rich compositions.
“Western art history is so rich and deep. It became very difficult to try and dislocate the conversation. I thought that if I’m going to make a painting, and I want the conversation to start in a different part of the world, then I need to change it from the very beginning. So, the subjects are now located in a different history, the history of the cloth, the history of the area.
“Although the cloth can be found in tourist markets, sold as table runners that soak up beer stains, for the Baganda people it’s also the most significant, ancient cultural product. I felt it also echoed a lot of the cultural changes taking place through development but it’s mainly how it functioned in the paintings that keeps it relevant.”
Armitage works with the idiosyncrasies, irregularities and joins of the bark cloth, navigating around the holes that appear when it is stretched. Like peepholes to something beguiling going on behind the scene, they are embraced as part of the composition.
With Africa on the radar of international collectors, many artists like Armitage are achieving upwards of six-figures for their work and finding their rightful place in private and museum collections. The West's fascination with Africa is, however, not going unchecked with Armitage playing with the cliches through his work.
“It was important for me to have implicit in the painting a relationship to exoticism and to the dumbing down that happens when something is exoticised or becomes a cliche. I want there to be something uncomfortably familiar about my work but then to use that language to explore a much more difficult, sophisticated life and culture that is as varied, problematic and interesting as any other life.
“Throughout my education [at Slade and the Royal Academy schools] I came up against a massive exotic barrier where, if I talked about anything, I was told to go and read Heart of Darkness. I encountered all these really basic, horrific cliches. There are many artists who travel to exotic places and make exotic work but, in conversation, every time you talk about coming from somewhere like Kenya, it is [all about] poverty, corruption, brutal politics. Obviously, having grown up in Kenya, I know it’s not like that … even under a dictator you’d still have life going on. I didn’t want to have to approach this in every painting but wanted it to be addressed in the cornerstones of my practice and elaborated through making the painting.”
Armitage often places cultural artefacts and animals in his work as stand-ins for people and a way of exploring aspects of human nature. “This is something that has been used traditionally in art to get around cultural taboos as it’s much easier if you have a couple of baboons getting it on rather than a couple of people. I like monkeys as they are uncomfortably like us and using them helps to strip away the bullshit. They are indicators of the truth of the situation.”
In the Accomplice paintings, there is a frog which often appears, which does not represent any specific political view or party but rather politics in general. “I was thinking about artful writers and how they’d deal with the subject. Particularly in George Orwell’s Animal Farm and how clever he was at being quite specific about some of the political characters of the time but also like you can’t pin that down.”
In Pathos and the Twilight of the Idle, two mischievous spirits in the form of Makonde sculptures (from Tanzania and Mozambique) represent paid “supporters” of political parties, who appear at rallies. “Like paid actors, they were the most visually striking guys. You’d see them in every situation, even running through teargas.”
• Accomplice: Michael Armitage, is presented at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town until June 15 2020.