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On Display: Michael Armitage’s play on the European artistic tradition tells a story of East Africa – past, present and imagined

In a new series previewing exhibitions, shows and events to put in your calendar, Inigo surveys Kenyan-born artist Michael Armitage’s new show at the Royal Academy, 'Paradise Edict'

Chloë Ashby
On Display: Michael Armitage’s play on the European artistic tradition tells a story of East Africa – past, present and imagined

Stand in front of The Paradise Edict (2019), the work from which Michael Armitage’s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London takes its name, and you’ll feel your eyes adjusting like a camera lens. You might start with the backdrop – a mass of misty green foliage beneath a blue sky – before focusing on the ghostly figures emerging in the foreground: a trio of snakes slither up a woman in a yolk-yellow dress; a pair of legs are gripped roughly around the ankles by bloody hands. The Kenyan artist takes the tranquil East African landscape peddled by Western tourism boards and overlays it with fantastical imagery that suggests a more complex narrative. All isn’t as it seems in this Eden. Look there: crawling out of a cool and inviting pool of water, an open-mouthed crocodile.

Born in Nairobi in 1984, Armitage graduated from the RA Schools in 2010 and has since had solo shows in London, Sydney and New York. He divides his time between his hometown, where he researches and sketches, and London, where he paints. In his large, multi-layered creations, he unravels his own experiences in Kenya, as well the social fabric, religious ideologies and political dynamics of his homeland. It was the contentious Kenyan presidential election in 2017, and the unrest that followed, that prompted the artist to consider the allure of paradise. In The Promised Land (2019), he presents a marketplace whipped up with chaos: teargas billows from an open canister and engulfs frenzied protestors in a lilac cloud of smoke.

In the top left-hand corner, though, renaissance trumpets sound. His subjects may be rooted in East Africa, but among Armitage’s myriad source materials are well-known works from Western art history. The disembodied pair of legs suspended from the sky in The Paradise Edict resemble those of the boy who flew too close to the sun in Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c.1555), while the painting’s wraithlike figures and sense of delusion call to mind Goya’s bleak and mysterious visions. Mydas (2019), which shows a man showering in blood, takes as its starting point Titian’s Pietà (1576). A baboon reclining in the jungle with a bunch of bananas between its legs recalls Manet’s Olympia (1863) and exoticising ways of looking. Armitage reconsiders cultural traditions and stereotypes, and the result is both disturbing and funny.

The Chicken Thief (2019) is a riot of colour in blue, yellow, orange, green and pink in which a man sprints from left to right clutching a feathered bird in his hands. Piled high on the wall are discs that look like oranges and lemons, neatly sliced. Or are they tyres, about to be burned? Molten flames lick at the man’s heels, and the frayed hole in his jeans could have been scorched.

Holes frequently appear in Armitage’s works, which are painted on stitched-together pieces of lubugo, a type of cloth made by the Baganda people of Uganda from bark and used as a burial shroud. Breaking away from the Western tradition of painting on either wood panel or canvas, the artist physically locates his work in East Africa by building up his mesmerising scenes on this culturally significant support. Thin layers of oil paint are brushed, rubbed, scraped and layered.

In addition to European titans of art history, Armitage looks to local artists. At the RA, 15 of his most recent paintings are on display alongside works by half a dozen contemporary East African painters chosen by him. Some are formally trained, others self-taught; all have influenced Armitage and played a part in shaping figurative painting in Kenya. Their images, too, explore society, sexuality, politics, religion. This section of the exhibition has been curated by the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute, a non-profit visual arts space founded by Armitage in 2020 to support the development of East African art.

It’s his unique ability to weave together multiple narratives that sets Armitage apart. On the textured and wrinkled surface of his paintings, he merges past and present, peoples and places, violence and compassion, daily life and fantasy. In paint, he does more than contradict the notion of a sunny paradise. With his rich palette and dreamlike imagery, he hints that – beyond the contorted figures and the frenzy – it might just exist. For now, though, we have to face up to the discomfiting truths casting dark shadows on it.

Images: (1-3, 5) courtesy of the Artist and White Cube © Michael Armitage. The Chicken Thief, 2019; The Paradise Edict, 2019;  Mydas, 2019; Pathos and the twilight of the idle, 2019. (4) Sane Wadu, My life, 1980-1990. Gunter Péus Collection, Hamburg © The artist. 


Michael Armitage, Paradise Edict is on display at the Royal Academy of Arts until 19 September 2021

Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute


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