Michael Armitage

Oil Paintings by Michael Armitage

Born in 1984, Michael Armitage grew up in Narobi, Kenya, and earned a BA in Fine Arts at the Slade School in London, later graduating from the Royal Academy with a Postgraduate Degree in 2010. He divides his time between Kenya and London where his studio is located. 

Armitage’s large-scale, complex oil paintings are executed on pieces of lubugo, a bark cloth traditionally made by the Baganda people of Uganda and used for burial shrouds or worn on ceremonial occasions. He originally discovered the cloth sold as placemats in a market in Nairobi. Its transmutation from sacred textile to tourist tchotchke made him think of how, as support for his paintings, its texture would both disrupt the field of paint as well as mark the work socio-politically and geographically.

Armitage’s work is concerned with the contemporary dynamics of life in Kenya, both from the individual and the collective experience of its people. He merges memories of Kenya with media depictions of East Africa, entangling the personal and the everyday in a web of social and political tensions. Through these compositions, Armitage considers how African bodies, political reportage, and the body politic circulate within systems of global capital, highlighting the fraught relationship between Africa and the West.

His paintings contain many references in its compositional elements, motifs and color combinations to the works of artists such as Titian, Velazquesz, and Francisco Goya. Equally important is the influence upon Armitage’s use of symbolism and palette by the East African modernists, such as Meek Gichugu of Kenya and Jak Katarikawe of Uganda. Images of animals, especially monkeys, play a special role in Armitage’s paintings, becoming symbols of human qualities.

Michael Armitage debuted his 2014 painting “Kampala Suburb” (last image in series above) as part of the group exhibition “Imitation of Life: Melodrama and Race in the 21st Century” at HOME in Manchester, England. The painting, depicting two men in embrace, references the structure of a hieroglyph from ancient Egypt and, in the background, a frieze, taken from an image of an execution in Somalia. 

“Although this was not LGBTQ related, I wanted the risk of violence to the couple to be in the painting, as members of the LGBTQ community have been repeatedly harassed, attacked, mutilated, or killed for who they are. It was important to have a sense of the risk of this private and basic intimacy within the painting, as the hostility towards the LGBTQ community extends into their private space. The current situation [in Kenya] is that neighbors who suspect men or women of being gay will attack them or accuse them of committing homosexual acts that are punishable by up to 15 years in prison.” – Michael Armitage

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