BY Sean O'Toole in Reviews | 16 APR 20
Featured in
Issue 212

Michael Armitage Renders Political Violence in Kenya with Fauvist Colour

At the Norval Foundation, Cape Town, the artist’s recent paintings refer to the contentious 2017 re-election of Uhuru Kenyatta 

BY Sean O'Toole in Reviews | 16 APR 20

The eight paintings in London-based Kenyan painter Michael Armitage’s first exhibition in Africa are studies of political fervour. They depict people spectating, celebrating, protesting and – in The Promised Land (2019), the largest painting on display – engaging in conflict. The artist began them during Kenya’s contentious 2017 presidential election, and they are informed by personal encounters at an opposition rally in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, as well as images from broadcast and social media. While inspired by real events, Armitage’s history paintings are ecstatic re-imaginings of civic assemblies, their raw potentiality and strangeness, rather than the quiddity of human bodies seen in news imagery.

Michael Armitage, The Accomplice, 2019, oil on Lubugo bark cloth, 220 × 300 cm. Courtesy: the artist and White Cube, London/Hong Kong; photograph: Theo Christelis, White Cube, London/Hong Kong

The Accomplice (2019), for which this show is named, centrally depicts three figures dancing over a burning tyre, its flames rendered in canary yellow. The trio of men defy gravity, floating like the pointy-hatted figures in Witches’ Flight (1798) by Francisco Goya, who, along with Paul Gauguin, is a vital reference point for Armitage. The composition also includes two unconcerned baboons in the middle distance and, beyond them, a seated throng rendered as a patchwork of colour. In the foreground, a hatted man in a camouflage shirt and helmeted policeman observe the events. Armitage records all this with detached economy: hands are rendered as stumps, facial details barely registered. Impression trumps precision.

Having begun as an abstract painter, in 2014 Armitage painted Peace Coma, depicting three snakes, their tails intertwined, against a rudimentary landscape. It was his first work to use lubugo, a culturally important bark cloth from Uganda that now forms the ground of all his mature oil paintings. First encountered in a Nairobi tourist market, its rough texture interfered with Armitage’s brushwork – a feedback he welcomed rather than spurned. The artist purchases lengths of this sustainably harvested material and stitches them into rectangular configurations that, before they are primed, resemble Alberto Burri’s burlap sack compositions. Lubugo is still produced by hand, sometimes resulting in uneven or threadbare sections that the artist skilfully incorporates into his compositions.

Michael Armitage, ‘Accomplice’, 2020, exhibition view, Norval Foundation, Cape Town. Courtesy: the artist and Norval Foundation, Cape Town; photograph: Michael Hall

The central motif in The Fourth Estate (2017) – a large tree – is painted over a distressed surface through which the gallery wall is visible in one place. Delineated against a sky filled with cream-coloured clouds, the tree’s leafless branches reach across the length of the horizontal canvas, forming a platform occupied by a dozen human figures hovering over a large crowd. One of the elevated figures holds a banner depicting a large frog. Animals recur throughout Armitage’s work; this larger-than-life amphibian also appears in The Promise of Change (2018), a dreamlike portrayal of a child addressing a crowd from a stage.

Michael Armitage, The Fourth Estate, 2017, oil on Lubugo bark cloth, 330 x 200 cm. Courtesy: the artist and The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection; photograph: 
 George Darrell, White Cube, London/Hong Kong

The Promised Land tells a story of agitation in two parts. On the left, a group of celebrants is gathered in a courtyard, two of them blowing plastic trumpets. A man wearing a red hat holds up an image depicting an odalisque in a blue skirt that invokes Gauguin, yet her figure is fringed by all-caps lettering that reads: ‘They can’t kill us all.’ On the right, the scene shifts from stasis to action, anticipation to tumult. Smoke from a teargas canister envelops three men, one of them wielding a catapult, another throwing a projectile. At the midpoint of the painting, a baboon sits before a palm tree whose foliage is rendered in a rudimentary flourish of green. The preparatory ink drawings clarify Armitage’s acute sense for detail and event, as well as the laconic mark-making that informs his magical fauvist renderings of Kenyan politics.

Michael Armitage, ‘Accomplice’ runs at Norval Foundation, Cape Town until 15 June 2020.

Main Image: Michael Armitage, The promised land (detail), 2019, oil on Lubugo bark cloth, 220 × 420 cm. Courtesy: the artist and White Cube, London/Hong Kong; photograph: Theo Christelis, White Cube, London/Hong Kong

Sean O’Toole is a contributing editor of frieze, based in Cape Town, South Africa.