Currently on at the RA, Micheal Armitage’s solo show. The Kenyan born oil painter makes gargantuan pieces, weaving rich, bodily tapestries which explore “politics, history, civil unrest and sexuality.” On show at the Academy are 15 of his paintings, spread out over two rooms. The third room in the exhibition features the works of six contemporary East African artists, which Armitage has selected himself. He has shown them alongside his own work as they “share many of [his] socio-political concerns” and represent the artistic context which he grew up in.
Armitage’s work pulses with a physicality which is given to it partly by the materials he uses. He paints on Lubugo bark cloth, a material made in Uganda for ceremonial purposes, usually funerals. Armitage first encountered the cloth for sale on a tourist stall in Nairobi, where it had become severed from its meaning. By painting in a way that celebrates the material’s imperfections, adapting his painting to its ridges and holes, he ‘reinvests’ Lubugo with significance. His heady, hefty strokes lie across the canvas’ itchy seams, and the work becomes dynamic in a way that at times almost feels sculptural.
The show opens by slamming you with the colossal “Pathos and the Twilight of the Idle” . The central figure, poised like a divine martyr under an arch that echoes classical compositions, dons a bikini while swinging slingshots from his six arms. A flat orange bird perches on his right shoulder, and the layers of symbolism mythicise “a paid protester who stirred unrest during the Kenyan elections in 2017”. Armitage simultaneously constructs and collapses ideas of power, masculinity, and virtue in a three meter tall oeuvre that leaves the viewer feeling winded. I find myself stuck in front of the piece, unable to tear my eyes away from the sickly skinned figure in the bottom right corner, mouth frozen mid shout, wrapped in a fat fur collar. The atmosphere is ambiguous and enticing, fraught with frenzied energy.
In the next room, “Paradise Edict” looms. The biggest body belongs to a transparent woman, and we see the florid landscape through her, inside her, as they become one another. In the left corner a man cavorts upside down, gripped at the ankles by a pair of fiery, bodiless hands. Three snakes come out of his asshole, which is a literal hole in the canvas, and twine themselves around the breast of the ghostly woman. It’s a tense balance between beauty and violence, a dichotomy echoed in the title of the piece. The background of the scene is referenced from an island on the coast of Kenya near Somalia, “a territory fraught with conflict…between Kenyan forces and the Somalia-based terrorist group Al-Shabaab”. Like the rest of Armitage’s work, the piece exposes the friction between authority and impulse, playing in the chasm of ancient and contemporary stereotypes.
The rest of the show continues with 13 paintings. “Antigone” comments on the male gaze and marriage, with holes in it as if fists had been pushed through the canvas. “Leopard Print Seducer” features a neon bloated torso wrapped in a leopard bikini and loincloth: legless, placeless, genderless. It’s a grotesque beckoning, the surreal invitation of a nearly faceless anthropomorphised monkey. Some of his paintings are soft, like “Numbers (Mau Mau)” where Armitage’s strokes invite a body, whisper it into almost being, all detached limbs and wings hanging like cloths drying in the sun. Other paintings are resolutely punchy. In “Midas” , the bruised cosmos borders the liquor shelf, and a leopard crouches in between, lapping at a bloody red stroke. A planet has broken open and pours out the body of a man, gripping his own neck with an indecisive expression. A pink footed woman crouches in the brush, staring out. It’s a disjointed piece, not only in it’s vicious colours but in the refusal of the figures to engage with one another, all resolutely immersed in their own creation.
The majority of Armitage’s palette is almost that of an artificial Gaugin, with pinks like crushed tablets; waxy, jaundice yellows; and always those red, itchy hands, disembodied and gripping. The last painting in the show, “The Fourth Estate”, feels like a breath of fresh air at the end of the loop, like rain come after a scorching summer. The lilac tendrils of a weightless tree glimmer above masses of faces watching the city. To me, it’s the most peaceful painting in the show. Interestingly, it depicts a group of opposition supporters at a political rally in Nairobi, during the 2017 Kenyan elections. The exhibition guide describes the symbol of the toad figured in the piece as one of “political deceit”, while the title references “the power of the press and its ability to frame politics”. The composition is a direct reference to Goya’s “Disparate Ridiculo” (Ridiculous Folly). Again, Armitage subverts and layers intentions, and his work builds a matrix of complexity that encapsulates Kenyan and East African “social norms, religious ideology, politics, and cultural clichés”.
It’s the best exhibition I’ve seen in a long time, and I leave the gallery on a sort of confused high, already keen to go back in and try and make sense of it all again. The show is up until the 19th of September, and is necessary viewing.
All quotes are taken from the RA exhibition guide.
Photos included taken by Maria Dragoi.