Painting Kenya’s power dynamics

Michael Armitage

The painter talks about how the distance between Nairobi and London allows him to take on topics at the heart of Kenya’s body politic.

Michael Armitage. Courtesy Michael Armitage.

Interview by
Drew Thompson

With highly-acclaimed shows at the Biennale Arte Venezia and the Museum of Modern Art in 2019, the Kenyan artist Michael Armitage appears unfazed and undeterred. His first show on the African continent, Accomplice: Michael Armitage, recently opened at The Norval Foundation in Cape Town, South Africa and features for the first time all the paintings from the 2017 election series—a poetic display of the ironies, nuances, and imaginaries of democratic transition.

A critical facet of Armitage’s creative process, which unfolds between Nairobi and London, involves looking at photographs that he has taken and drawing, giving him the freedom to make up figures on the lubugo bark cloth canvases he uses. Of importance to him and his practice is whether Kenyan audiences recognize the scenes he paints and how they might respond. Armitage uses a multitude of colors to mirror depth, and play with how viewers see the historical and daily life events of protest and electoral campaigning he depicts. Frustrations stemming from a failed attempt to exhibit in Nairobi prompted Armitage to explore the possibility of developing a non-profit space that would allow him to exhibit not only his work, but also the works of an older generation of Kenyan artists who are increasingly forgotten. Armitage spoke from Nairobi with Drew Thompson.


DT

Can we get a bit of the preview of the show “Accomplice” in South Africa at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town?

MA

The body of work began in August 2017, when I went to the main opposition rally [in Kenya] just before our elections. I went there thinking about making a group of paintings that would deal with the power dynamics between a leader and followers. But, then, the kind of expression of this was pretty extraordinary. There were so many other dynamics that were happening, bringing into question the whole idea of support and what it was to lead. The rhetoric of the leader, in this particular instance, was really dark and had a very subversive tone […] Sometimes the rallies had turned violent, and sometimes there were protests. The visually most striking people would be the same guys who would throw the stones at the policemen when they would be tear gassed […] It was quite surreal to see someone dress up in a superhero outfit and clown hair running through tear gas with massive stones and a sling shot, and then to see them in the same kind of outfit at the base of the stage getting sort of orders.

The paintings themselves, some of them became more surreal, like “The Promise of Change.” I was thinking about George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I had wanted to make political paintings, but I was interested in the people in that kind of exchange. I wanted to remove all of the things that were partly political that I had seen and make much gentler. So, in a painting like “The Promise of Change,” I was thinking about this toadish frog being on stage and presented to his followers, this kind of charismatic leader. Unless you were following him, you wouldn’t understand why anyone would be up there. The toad is a stand-in for that. “The Promise Land,” the title of another painting, comes from the fact that the leader of the opposition would say that he was going to lead everyone to Canaan, the Promise Land, when they voted for him.

Michael Armitage, “Muliro Gardens (baboons)” (2016).
DT

How do you think about using art historical or cultural references to grapple with the legacies of violence and political protest characterize Kenyan history? How do you use historical references in order to show something that a non-African audience or that Kenyan themselves might not be able to see?

MA

The main reference that I have in my work is Francisco Goya. When I was standing for example at the rally, there was a tree full of protestors. There were maybe 30 or 40 protestors dressed in all of these bizarre outfits, like clowns and super heroes. One guy had a poster of Di Vinci’s “Last Supper” with the opposition leader floating above Jesus’s head. There was this quite strange imagery. At the time, I hadn’t quite understood how odd it was. I was doing a radio interview and having to describe it, and I thought, I feel like I am describing Goya’s witches sitting up there or one of his carnivalesque scene where there is a procession. Then you start to think of other paintings of his, like his big history painting “Third of May 1808” and a couple of others that take on these interesting dynamics and set ups. Paintings like this become interesting because they themselves have this huge history and the stuff written about them and the preconceived ideas of how to read them become useful. You can take on some of that without having to rewrite everything in order to complicate a story or show the other facets of what’s happening. I am trying to use those references to open up the narrative. I would say the same for using literature references that are based outside of the painting itself.

Michael Armitage, “The Flaying of Marsyas” (2017).
DT

What aspects of painting’s history, as a medium of representation, challenge you the most?

MA

There isn’t really anything that is straightforward about making a painting. One of the things that is both difficult and a real gift of painting is that it has this extraordinary history. There have been so many painters that not only have made extraordinary paintings but also have spent a lifetime making them. There is a lot of stuff out there that’s pretty humbling to try and make something that sits within the same bracket being painting. One such painting is the “Pietà” by Titian, which has to be the greatest things, certainly in my mind, that has ever been made. Looking at the “Pietà” is like watching the history of painting before that painting and everything that followed like bottleneck at one point. Then having to go look at your own paintings after that [experience] is quite difficult. That’s always, I suppose, the thing that is continually humbling.

Michael Armitage, “The Fourth Estate” (2017).
DT

Here I was interested in the color scheme, which creates another texture to the scene. How do you think about your paintbrush stroke as addictive or obscuring?

MA

I have been thinking about how you can use layers of oil like thinner types of oil, like walnut oil or something like that, not only to create a graphic light […], but also to play with the idea of depth and layering. My thinking is always evolving in how to make the paintings. At the moment, I am thinking a lot about “Pietà” and the way that different languages can express different ideas. The way Julie Mehretu uses marks to tell different histories, and to layer those histories in one painting, to me is also fascinating. And I think that is the same if you are making a more strictly figurative painting. There are different ways of building that up. Another artist who I have been looking at is an Indonesian called S. Sudjojono. When he makes a painting that’s about a socio-political situation, something specific, he often paints in a quite solid way, not photorealist. You know exactly what’s there, more so than a painting that is more metaphysical or unseen. He uses these thin layers of oils, so the whole painting is breaking down and you are just clutching onto what you can see. [The paintings] are very gestural and suggestive. I find that sort of thing quite interesting from a technical point of view—how you apply the paint and embody so many things, so many things of your subjects.

Michael Armitage, “Mydas” (2019).
DT

I am surprised how the commentaries [on your work] are about the cultural significance of this bark cloth and little attention is paid to how you are making a visual statement by using the bark cloth, a medium not traditionally used, to see the scenes you depict.

MA

Part of the problem with painting, and one of the problems that I came across with it is the fact you also hide it. And for me that was really an interesting problem to have, and to try and deal with. Part of the contextual qualities of the whole practice really is the way that a kind of cultural dynamic obscures or maybe has a deeper meaning. I suppose maybe it is easier if I throw out someone like [Édouard] Manet, who I find interesting because of the way he sets up the paintings. They are always so heavily constructed and everything looks natural, until you start looking at it properly and then you realize that you are dealing with your own prejudice, from how he sets it up. I was interested in having something implicit throughout the painting; from the surface on which the painting is made on to the image that is on top it.

Michael Armitage, “Pathos and the twilight of the idle” (2019).
DT

What’s problematic for you about the bark cloth?

MA

From a technical position, it is very difficult to paint on because it’s irregular. I wanted to use a surface that located the paintings in a way that interested me, [but] I didn’t want the surface to become dominant to the paintings. I wanted it to be a whole. But that really does present a lot of problems when you are dealing with something before you paint on it, so dramatically different [and with] all of these things that are against painting. From a conceptual point of view, the fact that the material isn’t from here [Kenya], it’s from Uganda, yet most of the things I was thinking were in relation to Kenya, and I suppose in a way Nairobi really. I was interested in that dislocation.

DT

How do you locate yourself trans-regionally across East Africa?

MA

In all honesty, I don’t feel like I have to be so specific. I feel like that’s how consciousnesses have developed around here. There is so much that bleeds across those borders that are there in terms of our history and in terms of contemporary life, whether it is shared tribes that live across the borders or pre-colonial history, to a commercial region that operates together, to the fact that you don’t need a passport to go between the countries. Both culturally and socially there is so much exchange between them. Very often subjects, or elements of subjects are relevant within the whole region. Generally, across cultures, perhaps the thing that I found interesting is the more specific you get, the richer the subject becomes; the more people can relate to it or find something interesting. Whereas, perhaps, if something is too general it loses that thing that makes it a human story and a point of interaction. I don’t feel territorially bound in my work.

Michael Armitage, “The Paradise Edict” (2019).
DT

How does the distance of Nairobi from London allow you to take on certain topics? I was thinking about the representation of women, or this idea of beach boys or men kissing. Topics that are deemed controversial on the continent, you are able to depict.

MA

I certainly don’t want to back away from something because I think it will be controversial in some way or another. I haven’t had shows in Nairobi, although I have tried. I would like that to happen. I haven’t had any repercussions for anything that I have made in a tangible sense. So, I don’t feel like I have restrictions on myself. Also, artists don’t have a very big profile in this part of the world. There is not a public following, which one would imagine would concern the authorities. It isn’t like music or film, when something gets out, everyone watches it. I feel like art is unfortunately still quite exclusive. I hope that will change over time, because I feel like it should and can have a really important role to play within culture, and in urban culture. At some point, that distance will change, but I don’t think it will affect the subjects that I choose. To be perfectly honest, I try not to let anybody’s opinions affect what I do in terms of my paintings.

Further Reading

Art in dark times

Interview with historian Dan Magaziner about his new book, The Art of Life in South Africa, about one of the few art schools training black art teachers under Apartheid.

'African Hospitality'

I was knocked over by this.

A series of staged photographs by artist Andrew Putter (it was exhibited in South Africa earlier this year) which draws on the style of 18th century European painting, specifically the …