Featured in
Issue 216

Michael Armitage on his Kenyan Roots and the Painting that Traumatized his Imagination Forever

With a new show, ‘Paradise Edict’ at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, Jane Ure-Smith chats to the artist about his influences and the power parallels between modern politics and historic Christian art

BY Jane Ure-Smith AND Michael Armitage in Interviews | 02 DEC 20

A wide-eyed, bare-breasted woman surveys us coolly while sexually entwined with a zebra: bold, naive and surreal, Meek Gichugu’s No Erotic Them Say (c.1992) is an extraordinary work. For Michael Armitage, encountering it as a nine-year-old boy at the house of a friend was a life-changing event.

The painting is one of many thrilling examples of East African modernist art included alongside Armitage’s own in a survey of his recent work at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. ‘Paradise Edict’ is the British-Kenyan artist’s most substantial museum show to date, his first in Germany and, most notably, the first to contextualize his work in an East African art-historical framework. 

Earlier this year, in the face of Covid-19, the option of adding an extra room to the show opened up. With it came an opportunity to draw on the rich collections of African art held in German museums to bring a new perspective to the work of a painter whose reputation as an ‘international’ artist seems to outweigh the significance of his Kenyan roots.

In the show’s final room, some 70 works present a lineage of contemporary East African figurative painting. In Asaph Ng’ethe Macua’s terrifying The Genocide (undated), women pitch backwards into a river, while Ugandan-born Jak Katarikawe’s depictions of everyday life (including She Is Dream of Wedding, c.1974) rub shoulders with works by Elimo Njau, who opened Paa ya Paa Art Gallery – one of Nairobi’s first contemporary art spaces – in the 1960s. Armitage’s multi-layered, often dreamlike, narrative paintings owe much to these path-breaking artists.

The Munich museum has paved the way for a broader understanding of an artist arguably best known for his ‘borrowings’ from Western art history, while at the same time highlighting modernists from East Africa. I met Armitage at Haus der Kunst and spoke with him via Zoom at his London studio.

Michael Armitage,The Chicken Thief, 2019, oil on lubugo bark cloth, 2 × 1.5 m. Unless otherwise stated, all images courtesy: © Michael Armitage and White Cube, London/New York/Paris/Hong Kong; photograph: White Cube/Theo Christelis 

Jane Ure-Smith: At the show’s opening, you spoke of encountering Gichugu’s No Erotic Them Say as a schoolboy in Nairobi. Tell me about that.

Michael Armitage:  Seeing this image of a woman with her legs open having this bizarre interaction with this animal, where you can’t tell whether you are looking at a knee or a penis … it didn’t make sense! Everything about it went against what, as a kid, I had been told about how to behave in society. I found it repulsive at first but, every time I went back, it was the one painting I went to look at: it acted almost like a trauma to my imagination. In some ways, I feel I’m constantly coming to terms with it.

JUS: This is the first survey of your work to present your African side. What did you feel about the final room?

MA: There are some incredible collections of African art in Germany. The Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, for example, has over 100 paintings by Katarikawe, but they hardly ever get shown. They were collected from an ethnological point of view, so they are not considered contemporary art. 

I knew I owed a lot to these guys – not only did I share many of their socio-political concerns, but the way they used Christian imagery and different aspects of local cultures was so similar to what I was doing. But I’d never seen their work installed together like this: Katarikawe’s paintings can’t even be found in Kenya.

Meek Gichugu, No Erotic Them Say, c.1992, oil on, canvas, 76 × 51 cm.

Courtesy: the artist and Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute; photograph: Haus der Kunst, Munich/Markus Tretter 

JUS: The centrepiece of ‘Paradise Edict’ is the complete ‘Kenyan Election Series’ [2017]: eight large-scale paintings in which you explore the parliamentary elections that shook the country in 2017. You have said the exhibition title picks up on one politician’s pledge to take his supporters to Canaan – the promised land.

MA: I had been wanting to make a painting about power relationships between a leader and his followers. It was coming up to our elections at home and that seemed like a good place to start. 

JUS: So you attended some rallies before the vote? 

MA: Our election rallies can get a bit hairy – things kick off. I’m not so streetwise that I’d know what to do, so I got in touch with a local television station. I joined a team that was to cover one rally for the incumbent president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and one organized by Raila Odinga’s opposition. Two days before the election, they cancelled the last day of rallies, so I only got to see the opposition rally in Uhuru Park in the city centre.

JUS: Was it what you were expecting?  

MA: It was bonkers! By late afternoon, it had drawn 30–40,000 people. As early as 10am, the two dead trees in the park were full of guys, many wearing clown outfits and holding up slogans. One had a massive reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper [c.1495], with a cut-out of the opposition leader’s head floating above the figure of Jesus. I had to describe the scene for a radio interview and suddenly felt like I was describing a Goya etching.

Michael Armitage, The Fourth Estate, 2017, oil on lubugo bark cloth, 3.3 × 2 m. Photograph: White Cube/George Darrell

JUS: In fact, The Fourth Estate [2017] – one of the paintings inspired by the scenes you’re describing – takes as its starting point Francisco Goya’s Disparate ridículo [Ridiculous Folly] from his series ‘Los Disparates’ [The Follies, 1815–23]. Goya crops up again in Kampala Suburb [2014] and, elsewhere, you reference Paul Gauguin, Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Titian, Vincent van Gogh and Diego Velázquez. Why did you draw on these Western masters in your paintings?

MA: It’s often for a narrative I’m exploring. I ‘stole’ from Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas [c.1570–76], for instance, because I was making paintings examining violence in East Africa and I wanted to see what would happen if I took the narrative from elsewhere, whether it might shift the perception of violence in the work.

JUS: Many of your paintings are political, but in a non-party-political way. I assume it was the human spectacle of the Nairobi rally that attracted you.

MA: I wasn’t interested in whether it was a rally for the opposition or the incumbent – I couldn’t care less. It was what people were giving up for this, the human side. I was also interested to see what the leaders were doing, what the bargain was. 

JUS: You’ve recently been involved in setting up the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute. Can you tell me about it?  

MA: It’s an institutional space that recognizes and exhibits the work of overlooked 20th-century artists as well as providing a venue for contemporary artists to have more ambitious shows than commercial galleries would allow. It’s something I always wanted to exist, but I had never thought of starting it myself. Then, in 2017, I staged The Gathering, a three-day event that brought together 52 artists from 12 countries across the continent. In researching that and talking to students in Nairobi, I was shocked to find that they had little knowledge of artists showing before 2005. Pretty much all of the artists included in the Haus der Kunst show are already forgotten.

I started to talk to artists of my generation and older. Everyone said we need a different type of educative space. It took a couple of years to find the right people to work with, but we will have a library, an archive and residencies and, down the line, start a postgraduate degree for five artists a year. The first exhibition will be by Sane Wadu: 75–80 paintings spanning his whole career. It was ready to go in April. Now, we are looking tentatively to launch in early 2021.

Michael Armitage, The Promise of Change, 2018, oil on Lubugo bark cloth, 2.2 × 2.4 m. Photograph: © White Cube (Ollie Hammick)

JUS: Your mother is Kenyan; your father is British. You grew up in Nairobi but, in 2000, aged 16, you went to boarding school in the UK, then studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Royal Academy. These days, you have a studio in London and another behind your parents’ house in Nairobi, dividing your time between the two cities. Do you have a sense of belonging to one place more than the other?

MA: I find it a little bit weird how transient I still feel in London. I’m indebted to certain aspects of life here but, in terms of a sense of belonging, I only have that in Kenya. 

JUS: Were your parents into art and culture? 

MA: No. Art was always my thing – I started drawing at the age of six or seven – but I didn’t know that it was something people did, because I wasn’t from a family where there was art or artists around.

JUS: But you saw Gichugu’s painting at a friend’s house.

MA: We sometimes get lucky with the people we meet: my luck was to be friends with Rik van Rampelberg, whose mother, Chelenge, is Kenya’s best-known sculptor. Her husband, Marc, is a designer and, together, they have one of the most significant collections of East African art. In the early 1990s, he helped Gichugu put on his first exhibition at Gallery Watatu in Nairobi. Gichugu made something like 110 paintings in a single month before that show – an epic output of extraordinary work.

JUS: And one of those works was No Erotic Them Say – the painting that, just a few months later, would ‘traumatize your imagination’ when you saw it on the Van Rampelbergs’ wall? 

MA: Yes. I began to spend more and more time in Chelenge’s studio, sculpting and painting with her. The family introduced me to other artists and took me to all the shows. 

JUS: The raw material of your paintings is Kenyan society, its landscape and its animals. You often start from a drawing, then slowly build up the picture, subtly adding images from the media or pop culture and references to European or East African art. How did you arrive at what is now a recognizable style? 

Asaph Ng’ethe Macua, The Genocide, undated, gouache on canvas, 93 × 75 cm. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Haus der Kunst, Munich/Markus Tretter

MA: My first oil painting was a portrait and I kept doing them until, at the Slade, I decided to branch out. I was still making figurative works but I began looking at East African painting from the 1980s and ’90s – people like Gichugu, Katarikawe and Wadu. As a postgraduate, I began to ask myself what I wanted to spend my time thinking about. I started to question my language, the type of figures I would be painting, the kinds of stories I would be referring to, the colours – the whole lot. And, for a time, the figures disappeared. I started painting abstract squiggles. I made some pretty horrendous things for about five years.

JUS: What about materials?

MA The surface became important. I was trying to locate the narrative of whatever I was making in East Africa, so I experimented with clichéd things like fabric and woven palm-leaf mats. But the problem with paint on a woven palm-leaf mat is that it looks like paint on a woven palm-leaf mat! 

JUS: Then you discovered lubugo.

MA: Yes, it’s a bark cloth used traditionally as a burial shroud. But I struggled initially to find a way to work with it. My eureka moment was to put it over a stretcher, just as I’d been doing with canvas, and prime it. Suddenly, the painting and the surface were working together.

JUS: I’ve seen a 2017 film in which you say you felt lubugo embedded your work in Africa. 

MA: I came across it in a tourist market being sold as a Kenyan beer mat, but it’s not a Kenyan fabric at all: it’s Ugandan! And it’s a bit of a jump from a funeral shroud to a coaster that soaks up spilled beer. It did have a genuine history, but it was also performing a history that it didn’t have. When I began using the fabric, all that complexity, those problems, came with it. And I wanted that to be embedded in the work because I feel there’s an element of that conflict in myself and in what I make. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 216 with the headline ‘I started to question the type

of figures I would be painting, the kinds of stories I would be referring to, the colours’.

Main image: Michael Armitage, Baboon, 2016, oil on Lubugo bark cloth, 1.5 × 2 m. Courtesy: the artist and White Cube, London/New York/Paris/Hong Kong; photograph: White Cube (Ben Westoby) 

Jane Ure-Smith is based in London, UK. She is a journalist specializing in the visual arts and writes for publications including The Financial Times and The Economist.

Michael Armitage is an artist. In 2020, he had a solo exhibition at the Norval Foundation, Cape Town, South Africa, and received the 6th Ruth Baumgarte Art Award. ‘Paradise Edict’, his solo exhibition at Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany, is on view until 14 February and will tour to the Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK, from 13 March to 6 June. He lives in Nairobi, Kenya, and London.