Michael Armitage’s paintings weave multiple narratives that are drawn from historical and current news media, internet gossip, and his own ongoing recollections of Kenya. The 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. Living and working between London and Nairobi, Armitage often paints with oil on Lubugo, a traditional bark cloth from Uganda, which is beaten over a period of days creating a natural material which when stretched taut has occasional holes and coarse indents. As noted by the artist, the use of Lubugo is at once an attempt to locate and destabilise the subject of his paintings.
His latest show with White Cube, Another’s Tongue, presented online, brings together works on paper that Armitage has drawn from life, his memory and other sources, including his video notes which form the epilogue of the exhibition. The artist says, “Another’s Tongue is a presentation of ink drawings that I have made over the past couple of years.” In fluid ink studies, the artist paints the expanse of the Kenyan landscape and its wildlife, as well as life on the streets in urban East Africa. His vivid character sketches capture the energy of performers, prophets, musicians, the costumed crowds at Kenyan election rallies, and the illegal brewers in Nairobi’s slums. By his choice of title, Another’s Tongue, Armitage acknowledges the multitude of voices that he weaves into his works.
Expanding on his life in lockdown, the artist tells Something Curated, “When the lockdown was first put in place in London it meant that I couldn’t travel to my studio so I worked from home, drawing and making lithographs on the kitchen table. Seeing the effects of the pandemic on societies across the world and in particular, seeing the effects of the lockdown in Kenya where there isn’t a wealthy enough state to support and to look after the population, I began work on a fundraiser edition called Dream and Refuge from which all proceeds will go to helping health and feeding Charities in Kenya as well as providing support to arts and culture initiatives that support artists and musicians at this time.”
He continues, “Later on in the lockdown I was able to rent a car and drive to my studio. Since then I have been working on a painting of O Kelly, John Barry, Richard Moore and Sonny, four bin men in Hackney that have worked throughout the lockdown doing the heavy work of keeping our streets clean while the rest of us stayed home. The painting is a commission for the Southbank Centre’s outdoor exhibition Everyday Heroes that recognises the invaluable contribution of key workers to our lives.”
Feature image: Michael Armitage, Study (Street Performers, Musicians), 2020 / Images courtesy the artist & White Cube