In comparison to the historical recentness of mediums like video and installation, painting comes freighted with heavy histories, traditions, and pedagogies. This complicated heritage is taken up by the British-Kenyan artist Michael Armitage whose paintings respond to contemporary issues and events in Kenya through the ghosts of past picturing.
In comparison to the historical recentness of mediums like video and installation, painting comes freighted with heavy histories, traditions, and pedagogies. It has constituted a site where debates of modernism and “primitivism” have played out and where, as cultures clashed, localized forms and imported styles were joined. While video, installation, and photography are often considered the globalized media of contemporary art, oil painting carries a culturally loaded set of connotations as a long-standing “Western” medium. This complicated heritage is taken up by the British-Kenyan artist Michael Armitage, whose paintings respond to contemporary issues and events in Kenya through the ghosts of past picturing.
In his work, Armitage draws upon both Western and East African art history. His reference systems brings together his immersion in both of these worlds. Born in Kenya to an English father and Kikuyu mother, Armitage spent his childhood in East Africa before attending boarding school in the United Kingdom and training at London’s Slade School of Fine Art and the Royal Academy Schools. Writings on Armitage’s work have often paid close attention to the way he invokes European artists, but little has been said about their East African counterparts, presumably due to the historically Eurocentric nature of art history1See Michael Armitage (London: White Cube, 2017); Thomas Micchelli, “Answering the Colonizers of Modernism,” Hyperallergic (November 2, 2019); https://hyperallergic.com/526153/projects-110-michael-armitage-at-the-museum-of-modern-art/; Sean O’Toole, “Michael Armitage Renders Political Violence in Kenya with Fauvist Color,” Frieze (April 16, 2020), https://frieze.com/article/michael-armitage-renders-political-violence-kenya-fauvist-colour: Toby Kamps, “Michael Armitage with Toby Kamps,” The Brooklyn Rail (September 2020), https: //brooklynrail.org/2020/09/art/MICHAEL-ARMITAGE-with-Toby-Kamps. But it is this coupling of parallel cultural histories that interests me.
In Nyali Beach Boys (2016), Armitage revisits Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), transforming its central subject of five nude female prostitutes to five nude male prostitutes, known colloquially as “beach boys” who comb the beaches of Mombasa looking for wealthy female European tourists. The group of young men, rendered in shades of black, blue, purple, and yellow, stand against a tropical background of the same color palette. Their faces are reduced to a series of thin lines and concave eye sockets. They appear impenetrable and masklike, evocative of the African sculptures that Picasso used in the service of modernism. In his depiction, Armitage replaces Picasso’s basket of fruit, a symbol of female sexuality, with a black cat, an overt art historical reference to prostitution, most famously seen in Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863).
Armitage’s reworking of Picasso can be described in terms of what artist and art historian Olu Oguibe has termed “reverse appropriation,” as in a strategy of formal appropriation of the language and idioms of Western visual expression by the colonized.2Olu Oguibe, “Reverse Appropriation as Nationalism in Modern African Art,” The Third Text Reader on Art, Culture and Theory, eds. Ziauddin Sardar, Rasheed Araeen, and Sean Cubitt (London: Continuum, 2002), 35–46. Oguibe coined the term with regards to the Nigerian artist Aina Onabolu (1882–1963), who mastered the forms and techniques of western artistic expression. As he notes, Onabolu proved that the arts of drawing and painting were not culture-specific and could not manifest the superiority of one culture or people over another.3Ibid., 37–40. The example of Onabolu disrupts the heart of colonial discourse, namely the perpetuation of fictional differences upon which the colonial project was constructed.4Ibid., 35. Art and aesthetic sensibility were used to signify the unbridgeable distance between “savagery” and culture.5Ibid., 36. Within this paradigm, European modernists alone could appropriate artistic forms without compromising their creativity; they controlled the axis of appropriation. Alternatively, non-Western artists who appropriated from Western sources were deemed derivative.
Oguibe’s discussion on the appropriation of imperial culture is reminiscent of the relationship between mid-century African art movements and Western primitivism. Art historian Elizabeth Harney has written on the reclamation of African motifs from within the primitivist aesthetic by Senegal’s École de Dakar.6Elizabeth Harney, In Senghor’s Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960–1995 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004), 92–101. Under the new post-independence government led by President Léopold Sédar Senghor, the École de Dakar promoted an aesthetic that corresponded to the philosophy of Negritude.7Negritude was the official cultural ideology of the Senegalese state under Senghor’s government from 1960 to 1980. Senhor’s Negritude drew from ideas coming out of the Harlem Renaissance that were adapted by African and Caribbean expatriate intellectuals in Paris between the World Wars as a means to create a positive pan-African sense of identity in resistance to the dominant view of Africans and diasporans. Many of these artists chose to represent a pan-African heritage through objects preferred by the European primitive art market and modern artists.8Harney, In Senghor’s Shadow, 95. Harney argues that those involved with Negritude intentionally played with Western notions of primitivism to give a new accent to signs of “traditional” Africa and, in the process, expose the imperialist genealogy of modernist primitivism.9Ibid., 99. Armitage’s recourse to Western art history issues a similar “reverse appropriation” in that it offers a critique of the appropriative colonizing lens of modernist painters like Picasso.
Armitage locates his recourse to western art history in east Africa. Instead of canvas, a traditionally Western surface, Armitage works with oil paint on lubugo bark cloth.10See Hanna Girma and Michael Armitage, “Bark Cloth,” MoMA Magazine (January 14, 2020), https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/219. The cloth itself is created by removing a thin layer of bark from the Mutaba tree that is subsequently beaten by hand into a thin, flexible material. Protected by UNESCO, the production of bark cloth is an ancient craft of the Baganda people in southern Uganda where it is worn by kings and chiefs during ceremonial events and used as a burial shroud. Armitage sources lengths of the cloth and stitches them together before they are stretched and primed. He incorporates these stitches and the material’s occasional holes and irregularities into his compositions. While often noted as a defining feature of Armitage’s work, the medium of bark cloth has been a staple for many contemporary artists in Uganda, such as Fred Mutebi and Ronex Ahimbisibwe.11See Margaret Nagawa, “Conveying the Mallet: Barkcloth Renewal and Connectedness in Fred Mutebi’s Art Practice,” Critical Interventions, Vol. 12, No. 3 (2018): 340–355. In the past, modernists such as Ethiopian-Armenian artist Skunder Boghossian used bark cloth in their work to reflect the advent of decolonization. For Armitage, it seems that bark cloth represents both a search for a medium that is East African and a tool for decolonizing the overladen histories of oil painting.
In Nyali Beach Boys, the social experience of Kenyan beach boys is highlighted by way of Armitage’s appropriation of Picasso. This art historical reworking challenges an isolated understanding of the beach boys, compelling audiences to consider their longue durée. Anthropologist George Paul Meiu has written about the history of Kenyan beach boys. According to Meiu, in the 1980s, the growing markets of “tribal” and “ethnic” culture drew Western consumers to Africa in search of transformative, authentic Otherness – the same impetus shared by modernist painters.12George Paul Meiu, “‘Beach-Boy Elders’ and ‘Young Big-Men’: Subverting the Temporalities of Ageing in Kenya’s Ethno-Erotic Economies,” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 80, No. 4 (2015): 476. In response to this opportunity, Kenyan men migrated to coastal tourist destinations in order to sell souvenirs and perform traditional dances for European tourists. Many engaged in transactional sex or marriage with European women who were attracted to the thrall of the exotic, namely the virile Maasai warrior.13Ibid., 482. Through these relationships, Kenyan beach boys expected to acquire wealth, which they would then use to marry local women and speed up their ritual initiation into elderhood.14Ibid., 474. The lubugo cloth is also connected to the tourism discussed by Meiu; Armitage first encountered it in a tourist shop where it was sold as coasters and placemats, despite its sacred status amongst the Baganda. Picasso’s Demoiselles, the beach boys, and the lubugo souvenirs are thus entangled in the same Western stereotypes around an Africa available for consumption. The complicated histories of painting deployed by Armitage enable viewers to see these connections across time and the ways in which the beach boys comprise a longer trajectory premised on Africa’s exoticization.
In 2017, a year after Nyali Beach Boys was completed, Armitage began to work on a series of paintings based around events associated with Kenya’s general election and the violence that ensued as a result of ethnic rivalries and claims of fraud. The resultant history-style paintings were informed by the artist’s experience of an opposition rally in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park and images taken from broadcast media. In The promise of change (2018), a toddler, dressed in orange red robes and a plumed hat, addresses an indistinguishable crowd from a stage. Three adults bend over behind him; one of the men pokes out a long, bright red tongue. The third figure on the left, a woman, appears attached from the bottom of her hemline to a stand of decapitated heads. There are several frogs of enlarged proportions depicted: one shares the stage with the toddler and two more are suspended above the crowd. The strangeness of the scene is enhanced by the pink sky against which several acacia trees stand in the background. In another painting from the series, The Fourth Estate (2017), Armitage renders a purple tree that emerges from a sea of people attending a rally. The tree’s expansive branches are occupied by a dozen or so supporters, one of whom displays a banner depicting a large frog, while two additional frog banners are waved by the crowd below.
Armitage’s paintings on the rallies recuperate a series of Kenyan and Ugandan artists to the attention of global audiences. Though several of these artists were featured in the landmark exhibition, Seven Stories About Modern Art (1995), at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, the writing on the art history of East Africa remains thin, making Armitage’s work even more significant. In the catalogue for Seven Stories About Modern Art, curator Wanjiku Nyachae suggested that modernist painters skewed the reception and exposure of art from East Africa: there was an absence of the sculptures and masks made famous by Picasso in the region, which led to its dismissal by scholars and collectors.15Wanjiku Nyachee, “Concrete Narratives and Visual Prose: Two Stories from Kenya and Uganda,” Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa (London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1995), 162. She wrote that this alleged absence endures in perceptions around contemporary art from East Africa.16Ibid., 162.
Armitage’s treatment of electoral violence and the political landscape of Kenya evokes the work of students at Uganda’s Makerere School of Fine Art in the early 1980s whose paintings addressed the failures of the postcolonial state in the wake of Idi Admin’s regime.17Sidney Littlefield Kasfir described “resistance art” during the years of Idi Amin (1971–1979) and subsequently Milton Obote (1980–1985) as an incredibly dangerous act. Artists used largely complicated metaphors about dictatorship which were executed in the old, prewar metaphorical-monster style, often portraying animals from Kiganda myth. See Kasfir, “Up Close and Far Away: Renarrating Buganda’s Troubled Past,” African Arts, Vol. 45, No. 32 (2012): 60. The exhibitionFeedback: Art, Africa, and the 1980s curated by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi at Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth, Germany (April 28, 2018–September 30, 2018) examined a history of postcolonial African art with a focus on the 1980s. The decade was explored as a link between early postcolonial modernism and contemporary art and what was then known as “new internationalism” and now referred to as the global contemporary. Muwonge Kyazze and his contemporaries from Makerere were included in the exhibition. In Misfortune (1985), Mathias Muwonge Kyazze visualizes Uganda’s entrapment in a cycle of violence and destruction through a spider web packed with prey.18Nyachee, “Concrete Narratives and Visual Prose,” 174–177. There is a sense of several generations besieged by violence: a bird and its chicks struggle to escape from the claws of mythical creatures, while a skeleton attacks a chained pregnant woman whose womb has been torn open. An owl, the Ugandan symbol of death, watches over the carnage. The art created at this moment in time seems to provide Armitage with a case study on the confluence of painting and political unrest in East Africa.
Armitage also calls upon the Kenyan-based artists Jak Katarikawe and Meek Gichugu whose careers were forged through Nairobi’s notable Gallery Watatu and Paa Ya Paa Gallery. Their paintings were even included in Armitage’s first major institutional exhibition, Paradise Edict (2020) at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. In The promise of change and The Fourth Estate, Armitage’s dream-like portrayal of the rallies, where reality gives way to the imagination, is reminiscent of Katarikawe.19On Katarikawe, see Joanna Agthe and Elsbeth Court, Blinder aus Traumen/Dreaming in Pictures: Jak Katarikawe (Museum der Weltkulturen, Frankfurt am Main 2001). The catalogue accompanied a major exhibition of the artist’s forty-year career, Blinder aus Traumen/Dreaming in Pictures: Jak Katarikawe at Galerie 37, Museum der Weltkulturen, Frankfurt am Main, Germany (September 14, 2001–March 31, 2002). The show travelled to the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi and the Makerere University Art Gallery in Kampala. The paintings’ color palette adopts the artist’s trademark pastel hues of yellow, blue, pink, and purple. More than just dreamlike, the sinister and surreal atmosphere portrayed by Armitage seems to draw from the world of Gichugu where bodies are distorted and tongues unfurl against a landscape of acacia trees.
Long-ago dubbed by Western critics as “Africa’s Chagall” due to his depiction of dreams, animals, and his home village,20Elsbeth Court, “Jak Katarikawe: Mind the Gap,” African Arts, Vol. 37, No. 2 (2004): 91. a popular story goes that when Katarikawe heard of his European predecessor, he suggested that Chagall had copied him.21Erik Morse, “Wanyu Brush, Jak Katarikawe and Sane Wadu,” Frieze (September 1, 2011), https://frieze.com/article/wanyu-brush-jak-katarikawe-and-sane-wadu. This anecdote gets at the lingering centrality of a European canon of painting, in which artists who fall outside are made sense of through the canon, but they themselves are secondary to it, or optional to the art history syllabus. Alternatively, Armitage’s paintings place European and East African artists on equal footing, refuting these derivative accounts. As the discipline of art history attempts to become more global and attuned to the legacies of colonialism, Armitage’s paintings weave together, like the stitches of his lubugo cloth, these interconnected histories.