At the cusp of figurative and abstract aesthetic traditions, Michael Armitage’s paintings are large works of expressionist landscapes. Human–animal beings are woven into visual ecologies rich with sensual life. The Kenyan-born artist’s painterly touch creates an unstable worldliness that refracts sociopolitical events through a mythopoetic sensibility, while also incorporating Western art-historical motifs. We are faced with images utterly immanent and contemporary, yet weird and surreal, often asking the viewer to interrogate their preconceptions in a non-coercive fashion. The aesthetic that Michael manages to convey is a process-led undertaking, one where creative practice is utterly intertwined with his experience of the world. There is a kind of haptic visuality; we are affected by his work in a visceral manner that breaks from its immediate physical location. Eroticism, beyond the overt sensuousness on display, can be understood as a painterly jouissance; an ecstatic pleasure in the painting that functions as a rearrangement of our intellectual and affective capacities. This is an augmentation of Roland Barthes’ conception of the writerly text, found in The Pleasure of the Text (1973), where the reader has to engage and re-enact the destabilising semiotic codes at work, and in doing so reaches a blissful state. The London-educated artist’s mischievousness is both singular and multiple, where his experience is mediated through an artistic practice that both builds and destabilises the subjects being depicted. This is a practice embedded in his own embodiment, but one that exceeds the bounds of sealed subjectivity, open to the embrace to be found flourishing across the luxuriant landscapes and urban sprawls of East Africa.
Kashif Sharma-Patel: I want to start with thinking broadly about memory and sensation in your work. There is something very sensorial about the landscapes you are creating, the images that are being impressed upon you as a viewer, something you can feel. This visuality seems to transcend the artist and live on as an impressed memory. Could you expand on this idea?
Michael Armitage: Certainly. Looking at other people’s work, it often only comes alive once you have left it. Sometimes there are things that are exciting to look at but once you leave really grow in your imagination. It becomes different.
There have been many occasions when I’ve either been disappointed – or even the exact opposite! – when I’ve come back to a painting for a second time. I’m always thinking about how memory shifts. This is particularly pertinent with works that have links to real life; events that have actually occurred. However patchy or clear that memory is, the kind of tools you are dealing with – paint, colour, texture, surface, image, composition – allow you to work in an equivalent ambiguous space. In that sense, I am not a fan of saying that my work is about X or Y, because it isn’t exactly.
Whenever I have set out with a par-ticular narrative in mind, once I begin working, the process ends up shifting it; the narrative either becomes fuller or totally changes altogether. The paintings are ambiguous, the narratives are ambiguous, and what you are left with is an experience of having made the painting. The painting is an account of that, and I find it really exciting if you as a viewer are affected sensually by its visuality. Only focusing on a narrative element is fine, but that is not solely what I want to convey. For me, the experience of producing the painting has led to the thought process behind it.
Kashif: I wonder if you could talk about the specific bark material – lubugo – used for the canvas, particularly in relation to the haptic quality of your work.
Michael: Over time, its meaning has evolved. In the beginning, I was looking for a material that would both locate and subvert the paintings I was making. ‘Locate’ in the sense of placing it in a particular geopolitical context and history: East Africa generally and Kenya more specifically. ‘Subvert’ in the sense that I wanted what I was painting on top of the material to be at odds with the ground – the canvas – on some level, while at the same time be part of the same history and narrative. When I actually found lubugo there were a lot of other links that came up, particularly once I decided to make figurative paintings. All of a sudden, the ground became like a skin in a very literal sense as it has stitches, as it is beaten, as the tree is flayed and stretched and then reused. It functions as its own carrier. It has all of these other qualities that I did not anticipate at all. This has ended up being much more interesting than my initial approach of locating and subverting (which proved to be an overly logical way of reaching the material). Lubugo requires a more affective, tactile approach.
The surface is quite dictatorial at times and accentuates how the making of the painting determines the outcome, which is a depiction of that experience. It can be incredibly difficult to work on. You can only do certain things. If I want to paint a face that is quite defined, I can’t make divots or a gaping hole. Lubugo asks you to work in different ways and makes me think compositionally, let alone actually building the painting up, which also changes depending on how rugged, torn or rich the surface is. The surface evolves – I feel like it does that with every painting I make. Lubugo asks me different questions. There are things that I think work, then I come back to it and it does not. I am constantly having to figure out new solutions.
Kashif: Over the course of your artistic development, from childhood through art school and as a working artist, you have flitted between different formal aesthetics – from figurative, to abstract, back to figurative. This seems reflected in the way that the landscape enters the figures in your work. The landscape is both textured from the lubugo canvas material while also reflecting the Kenyan and East African settings. You capture the bodily figures within that so beautifully and sensuously, whether human or animal.
Michael: I had been thinking about landscape a lot, and that is what led me back to figures. There were two catalysts for me in that regard. Firstly, I was in Trinidad on holiday and happened to be on a beach that appeared in one of Peter Doig’s paintings. I always thought there was a fantastical element to his work. When I went to that beach it was so literal, right down to his depiction of an old horse with vultures around. It was all there. It was an exact painting of the landscape, and yet fantastical. At that moment, something shifted, and I realised you just have to paint what is in front of you, instead of overcomplicating it.
I was also looking at Japanese prints, particularly those of Utagawa Kuniyoshi. In his work, there are two components: one is the way that surface planes are broken down into quite abstract elements; second, he employs this narrative tool where each print has a protagonist. Say a cat is being attacked by a group of samurai. Behind that scene, the landscape will be full of cats. The protagonist and the landscape are the same. You do not see it at first, but it is connected. I have always been interested in aspects of the mythologies and histories, as well as the political events, or contentious issues that surround landscapes. A way of doing that is to bring them together so they exist in the same frame. Then, inspired by Sigmar Polke, I wanted to bring in all of these different narratives to the same field. To think about these things, not logically or directly, but as a whole.
… It was as if the leopard was a spirit that could disappear and reappear at will…
Kashif: You frequently portray figures either as humans acting like animals, or vice versa. Their relationship to the landscape is very fluid, inflected with aspects of mythology. It often feels almost supernatural but rooted in a certain realist style too. Is that fair to say?
Michael: Your question is making me think about an experience I had of watching a leopard stalking under the moonlight. It was so strange. There were no lights on at all, but you could see everything. It was as if the leopard was a spirit that could disappear and reappear at will. I was watching, thinking I was looking at it, and then suddenly realised it had moved on. Logically, I knew what was happening – that it was camouflaged. But the way it slunk into the landscape and reappeared felt unfathomable. The experience was beyond words. Your question also reminded me of Manet. He used a realist set-up where the paintings almost feel like they are photographic, but as soon as you look closer it all breaks down. Nothing makes sense. There is nothing that would sit like that in a normal perspectival plane.
Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with the memory of the leopard and Manet’s technique. It seems that they may share a connection. It’s interesting to think about how seemingly realistic aspects can be used to turn the gaze back on the viewer. For the painting to interrogate the viewer in terms of what they want to believe is true, against what is artifice and what you are imposing prejudicially on the painting as a viewer. I’m also thinking about phenomena that have perfectly logical explanations and yet can still feel totally out of this world. There is something in that with nature, as well as with epic mythological stories that are often so close to reality and yet so far away. I think about those things a lot. As I mentioned, I don’t sit down and think I will do X or Y in my paintings specifically, but they are certainly part of my thought process.
Kashif: In some of your works, such as Antigone (2018) and Baboon (2016), eroticism figures strongly. It seems that on initial reading you are shifting a colonial gaze with regard to the black African body and sexuality. The viewer is forced to interrogate themselves in terms of their prejudices towards sexualised black bodies.
Michael: That’s interesting because neither of those paintings came from that perspective. Undoubtedly, as soon as I made the study for Baboon I knew I was in deep water. The same again with Antigone. The way I wanted to set the painting up was provocative. I was actually thinking more about social pressures in Kenya on women, more than the eroticised view of African women in pornography or historically in colonial cultures. But certainly, that was undoubtedly there. As soon as I put these things down on paper it was clear. It made them very uncomfortable paintings to make. For example, with Baboon, when I made the drawing, I felt very uneasy. I was anticipating getting some criticism. I thought those two paintings would have a much more negative reaction, which didn’t
end up being the case at all, which I find interesting in itself.
The origins of Baboon came from listening to an interview with a traditional healer, so it was completely removed from the colonial–sexual legacies and those representations of Africans. For me, that was much more interesting. What I often feel with this postcolonial dialogue is the notion that an artist has made accusations and used them to build an image then dominates every other aspect of their work. That is really problematic. What made me continue with the painting is that I did not come at it from that accusatory position. Viewers of the painting are forced to face their own preconceptions and deal with them on their own terms. That was very important for me. Although certainly, Baboon was made with a kind of mischievous character.
Antigone was much harder. I wanted to bring in elements of the way Gaugin would set up a female nude on the bed. The way he would shift the headboard, his use of perspective in composition, all became part of the narrative I created. My hope is that people do find them to be problematic paintings. Certainly, with Antigone, and Baboon to a lesser extent, I was dealing with ideas I find very difficult. Antigone was born out of thinking about the pressure on women to marry, and the way that they are considered to only be able to find happiness and security through dependency on a man. I wanted to show the absurdity and perversity of that, which is why I used a pose from Jak Katarikawe’s painting Untitled (She is Dreaming of Wedding) (no date) where the central figure sits in the same position as Antigone.
Kashif: Kampala Suburb (2014) also comes to mind, that depicts two male lovers kissing, which speaks to similar problems that you mentioned. I believe you even had trouble showing it in East Africa.
Michael: Yes, I was supposed to have a show a few years ago. It would have been my first solo show. I sent images of the paintings, of which Kampala Suburb was one, and I never heard back from them again. I did not receive any explicit reasoning. I had spent a year working towards that show, exchanging correspondence with the gallery, and then that was the end of the conversation. The only thing that had changed was the inclusion of that painting. As far as I am concerned, that was the reasoning behind it.
The interesting thing about figurative paintings is that you are working with the body. The body has so many relationships – other than just to the self – and can deal with so many peripheries. And yet, simultaneously, bodies are confronted by what is at the heart of culture. Kampala Suburb came from a story about two guys just outside Nairobi who had been accused by their neighbours of being gay. They were beaten, arrested, sexually assaulted and forced to have HIV tests. This was against the Kenyan constitution. Their rights should have been protected. At the same time, in Kampala, the Ugandan government was passing these horrific laws. They were planning on extending the prison sentence if you were found to be homosexual or from the LGBT community. You would spend your life in prison. If you knew someone and did not report them you could go to prison for fifteen years. It was totally absurd and very dark. Luckily, these laws did not get passed. In contrast, Kenya is seen as a safe haven for LGBT refugees from across Africa, all the way up to Yemen even. Yet we also have plenty of issues to deal with. That painting was my way of trying to think through that, with the intention of showing it to a Kenyan audience. I just wanted to make a painting of two people in love really.
Kashif: You have recently produced a series of lithographs Dream and Refuge (2020) on empathy and care. What has made you change material and work within this more intimate conceptual framing?
Michael: I had been thinking of making a series of simple works of people with their eyes shut. My cousin, following post-election political violence, had taken shelter in a police station, where he spent a few nights sleeping on the floor. He told me he saw families: there would be a man, woman and a few children all huddled for warmth on a concrete floor. It led me to this particular image of people sleeping on the floor, looking after one another in a space that should be used for incarceration but had become this point of refuge. I was also thinking about a fundraiser edition of lithographs. With the help of Gasworks and White Cube, we released the edition to raise money for a women’s health charity, Beyond Zero, and Ghetto Classics – a classical music charity that repurposed its network to help in Covid-relief efforts in Nairobi – and NCAI (Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute). So, in order to try to create something relevant to the cause, I was drawn to a tender theme about people looking after each other.
In a more abstract sense, I would also talk about Goya. He is probably one of the most hopeful artists, one filled with empathy for others. Even though his work is incredibly dark, it feels as though it is done from a place that recognises the better side of humanity. Goya reaches towards that which could happen or should happen. That was something interesting for me to explore in my own work. Although, there is a conflict there. I often question if by dealing with heavy subject matter, I am propagating those same dark stories, or if I am channelling something more hopeful out of that experience. This group of lithographs on people helping each other aren’t necessarily clear ideas. They are images to process and express what I am thinking and feeling.
…People were dressed in all sorts of outfits and styles; so many different ways of presenting themselves. It was completely overwhelming!…
Kashif: Often you are responding to political events. Your Kenyan Election series is particularly striking in this regard. In The Fourth Estate (2017) there is this mass of people, a social site of gathering as much as a site of political demonstration. When you experienced those election rallies did you already have preconceptions of how the work would appear?
Michael: I went to the rallies thinking that I would produce one painting, perhaps on the subject of power, and what it means to support and follow a leader. When I arrived there it was this colourful carnivalesque meeting point, both physically and in terms of ideas. People were dressed in all sorts of outfits and styles; so many different ways of presenting themselves. It was completely overwhelming! At the time, I didn’t think that the imagery and characters of the day would be anywhere near as fantastical or absurd as they ended up. I also didn’t have Goya or George Orwell’s Animal Farm in mind, yet all these different cultural references were ignited. During a radio interview, I was describing the tree, which I portrayed in The Fourth Estate, which felt extremely analogous to Goya’s etchings. At the rallies, people were holding banners with Da Vinci’s Last Supper and the opposition candidate floating along above Jesus. It was very surreal.
There were 30,000 people gathered: just one row of feet, and 30,000 heads. Watching the scene, in my mind they immediately transformed into strange characters. All these associations quickly arouse, and I started making sketches. Before I knew it, I had fifty drawings. The next two years’ work came out of that one day. It wasn’t expected at all.
Kashif: Specifically, The Chicken Thief (2019) came out of that experience. It is very carnivalesque, with this character running off with a chicken while being chased by a monkey–demon figure. You seemed to hone in on the intimate details, the smaller subplots of the occasion.
Michael: Among this mass of people, young kids would be running between legs, picking stuff up off the ground, nabbing what they could, and just wreaking havoc. It was quite Dickensian. All these bizarre things that were only imaginable from being there and witnessing it. It was a lesson for me: there were so many elements in the photographs that I hadn’t picked up on at the time. All these peripheral things that happened. None of that would have come if I had set about to make only a painting about power. Seeing the fullness of the rally was so rich – I feel like I could keep on making work about them for years to come because there was so much in there visually.
Kashif: Urban space in your work is treated very differently to landscapes. The urban spaces are much plainer in contrast to the layered expressionism of the landscapes you portray. Is that fair to say?
Michael: The urban spaces I have painted are much more generic than the landscapes. That is partly because Kenyan, inner-city architecture is much more repetitive, and nondescript compared to rural spaces. Yet cities are the abstract ground upon which other narratives happen. Campus
Divas (2014) was the first painting I worked on where I was thinking about what it is to make something in and of the city. The work was influenced by conversations with a friend who had been making religious rap videos. He had wanted to put them in the least impressive environments, the most mundane backdrops possible, so that more people could relate to the message. He had been looking at these new buildings that were coming up all around the city at that time. Every single one of them looks the same. They’re all hideous. They all look like they would fall down if you leant on them. But that was what he used to set-up these rap videos and I found that a really interesting idea; that the buildings were like a blank canvas. That set me off on the painting Campus Divas, while also thinking about what is encapsulated in very bland architecture. Within that work, I wanted to capture the different aspirations of urban spaces: what someone wants you to feel or what that person wants from the space as dwellers inhabiting their surroundings.
Kashif: The way you work is that you make sketches in Kenya, which you work into paintings at your London studio. Do you find it useful to have that physical distance between yourself and the subject, between the Kenyan landscape and studio location?
Michael: The distance doesn’t feel physical. Making the painting is the distance. Once you set off on the painting it is its own world already. It doesn’t really matter if I am in London or Nairobi. I would prefer to live in Nairobi, but that hasn’t been the case up until now [during the pandemic]. It has been consequential, rather than intentional. On a fundamental level, it has been amazing to live in a foreign country, in England, and to be able to reflect. To have to try and see one’s own culture from a different perspective, while also feeling like a total foreigner at times. That is where the distance has been interesting, but the actual process is already embedded in me; the location doesn’t really matter. Visual touch and sensation are already embedded in the process of making