The most striking painting in ‘The Chapel’, Michael Armitage’s exhibition at the South London Gallery last year, was easily the most gruesome. Any work titled The Flaying of Marsyas is going to be gory to a degree but, unlike the Titian to which this painting of 2017 alludes, once the viewer makes sense of the composition, the horror of the scene is brought to the fore. At the top of the canvas a naked figure is tied horizontally to a tree, while the crowd below looks on. But whereas Titian makes the flaying look like a precise anatomical procedure – as delicate as the act of painting, perhaps – this modern-day torture scene dwells on the victim’s stripped back and a bloody swathe of hanging skin that gleams like a piece of raw steak.
Michael Armitage was born and grew up in Nairobi and, after studying at the Slade School of Art and then the Royal Academy Schools (graduating from the latter in 2010), he now divides his time between Kenya and London, where he has his studio. Armitage’s paintings have been starting to catch the eye of major museums as well as critics and private collectors (he is represented by White Cube). The South London Gallery exhibition was his second solo show in a UK institution last year following ʻPeace Comaʼ at Turner Contemporary, Margate. In the same year Nasema Nawe (2016) entered the permanent collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; earlier this year the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago acquired The Flaying of Marsyas.
Armitage’s complex, large-scale oil paintings are executed not on canvas, but on pieces of Lubugo, a bark cloth made by the Baganda people of Uganda (although the painter first came across the material in Kenya), which is traditionally used in burial shrouds or worn on ceremonial occasions. ‘It’s an incredibly giving surface in that it interrupts the paint a lot so that you can’t do things you can do on a flat surface,’ Armitage explains. ‘You can’t have a smooth running line with thick paint […] the wood is continually breaking down the mark and it lends itself more to washes of paint. For example, if I wanted the surface to come through, using the way it breaks up the mark is a really good way of bringing it to life.’
His explanation of why he was looking for an alternative to canvas in the first place perfectly describes the finely balanced tension between subject matter and medium that characterises his work. ‘It took me the best part of four years to find a material that functioned in the way that I wanted it to. I was consciously looking for a way of locating the subject and the language within East Africa, so that if I were to make a painting that referred to aspects of Western art history, it wasn’t about making something that was derivative, but uses that as a reference point.’
As Marsyas and the Gauguin-influenced Nasema Nawe demonstrate, Armitage is extremely conscious of the history of painting and the implications of all his choices, and of the balance between tradition and innovation. ‘There are so many people who’ve made pretty extraordinary things with paint and it’s an incredibly humbling material to try and use. So to me it would only make sense that you would look to what other people have done in order to try and create a language, or at least a painting that hopefully is a new painting of some sort.’ Drawing – from direct observation or copying other images – is an important basis for the works, although it can be years before something from the image bank (‘I always keep a wall of drawings in the studio’) makes it on to bark cloth.
The subject matter of Armitage’s paintings is often concerned with violence – from the terrorist attack in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi or the practice of extrajudicial execution by ‘necklacing’ – but their palette and composition often challenges the viewer to interpret the scene. Necklacing (2016), for example, is a disconcerting patchwork of vigorously applied clashing greens, with comic purple accents – and a figure with a grotesque caricature of a head. As Armitage puts it, ‘The paintings really are an artifice, but the subjects are always grounded in either my experience or a socio-political situation.’
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