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In the studio with Michael Armitage

Published 9 March 2020

Tristan McConnell reports from the Nairobi studio of Michael Armitage ahead of his group exhibition, ‘Radical Figures’, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

  • From the Spring 2020 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA. Tristan McConnell is a writer and foreign correspondent living in Nairobi.

  • The inner bark of a Ugandan fig tree, washed, beaten and stretched into cloth is, for some, a burial shroud, for others, a material for ritual clothing. For the artist and RA Schools alumnus Michael Armitage it is a canvas. “It changed everything about how I paint,” he says, when we meet at his studio, which is tucked away in the sloping garden of his family’s home on the outskirts of Nairobi.

    The 36-year-old figurative painter was born in Kenya to a Yorkshireman father and Kikuyu mother and spent his childhood in East Africa, before training as an artist in Britain, at London’s Slade School of Fine Art and the Royal Academy Schools, from where he graduated in 2010. It was an experience that was to prove challenging, but formative.

    “It was a very critical form of art education that involved stripping everything back to the basics and building it back up again, which was essential, if not enjoyable,” Armitage recalls. “Up to that point I didn’t see the usefulness of me being an artist.” In the course of his art training he studied Western art history – the influences of Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Francisco Goya, Edouard Manet and Titian are evident in his paintings – but he resisted being subsumed by it.

  • , The artist in his studio

    The artist in his studio

    © Khadija Farah.

  • “It was because I was having to show my work to a foreign audience the whole time, because I was working with a foreign context and art history, that I ended up trying to find something from here in East Africa,” he says, returning to the bark-cloth canvas. “I thought, I’ve got to change from the beginning of the paintings. I have to try and make something that begins here, that has its roots here.”

    After several abortive experiments, Armitage stumbled upon the Ugandan lubugo cloth – a dark brown material imbued with cultural meaning – in the prosaic setting of one of Nairobi’s many tourist markets. Armitage discovered that, when stretched, primed and treated, the cloth took on many of the qualities of canvas that is used in the West, yet it allowed "a subtle subversion" of European artistic traditions.

    The material’s natural imperfections – its defects, ridges, roughness, joins and holes – are the bedrock of his paintings that echo Kenyan life: lush, riotous, overwhelming, incomplete, becoming. Armitage finds stories in the real world that he writes onto cloth with paint. A recent series was triggered by a visit to an election rally in Kenya. “It was Goya-esque,” Armitage recalls. The pantomime and pageantry of political performance was on full display, with the religious iconography and symbolism of the leaders, and fanatical supporters dressed as clowns, or superheroes, or cross-dressing, and people in the crowds climbing trees to get a better view. “I’ve always liked storytelling,” he says, “but I’m horrific at writing, reading, all that stuff.” Instead, he recreates these scenes from life with bright, luxuriant sweeps of oil colour.

  • , Ink drawings on the studio wall

    Ink drawings on the studio wall

    © Khadija Farah.

  • Inside his studio, three two-metre long frames of stretched bark cloth lean against one of the walls, facing windows that look out onto a curtain of variegated greens: cedars in the garden, and in the distance the eucalyptus stands of the neighbouring Karura Forest. Tacked to another wall are dozens of small pencil sketches, as well as drawings in Prout’s ink and watercolours of portraits, figures and landscapes (above right). They are all early outlines for his next series of paintings.

    Armitage’s work has an exuberant, hallucinatory quality – sometimes dream-like, sometimes nightmarish – that suggests multiple interpretations: people can make of it what they will. “At the end of the day they’re paintings, they’re silent, they don’t say anything,” he declares.

    The tranquility of his Nairobi studio is something Armitage hopes to enjoy more often. His career to date has been marked by rapid success since his first appearance at White Cube Bermondsey in 2015. He is part of a major group show of contemporary figurative painting currently at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, and the subject of an exhibition at Cape Town’s Norval Foundation, with another planned for Munich. Last year Armitage displayed work at the Venice Biennale and MoMA in New York, while his confirmation as a commercial power in contemporary art came in November, when a painting from 2015, The Conservationists, sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $1.5m, more than 20 times the guide price.

  • Michael Armitage, The Conservationists

    Michael Armitage, The Conservationists, 2015.

    Oil on lubugo bark cloth. 170.2 by 149.5 cm. Courtesy Sotheby's..

  • Armitage plans to rebalance his time split between Kenya and Britain – currently he spends twice as long in London – and to develop a programme for a proposed non-profit exhibition space for East African art called the Nairobi Contemporary Arts Institute. It may also provide an opportunity for Kenyans – his “second audience”, he says, after himself – to see his work properly for the first time because, to date, his shows have all taken place abroad.

    Being both Kenyan and British has lent Armitage a cultural deftness and fluidity that is evident in his relaxed mannerisms and the ease with which he navigates the thorniness of identity politics in art: of who can say what to, or for, whom.

    “The fundamentals of who I am come from this place, from Kenya – and a large part of me is also English,” he says. “All you can do is make things that are important to you and if they speak to others, so be it. I certainly don’t feel like it’s my place to speak for anybody else.”


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