It’s an opulent kind of painting. Contrasting and shimmering hues, shapes arranged in spirals seemingly the product of reflections or anamorphoses. And these blurred representations, which even seem to have emanated from a waking dream, are animated by a strong sense of social consciousness.
Londres and Nairobi
There are many of us who have been bowled over by the work of the artist Michael Armitage (born in 1984) who lives between London and Nairobi. Ralph Rugoff exhibited his work at the Venice Biennale in 2019. Moma in New York staged an exhibition on him when it reopened in October 2019.
Palais de Tokyo
During the winter of 2021 the curator Marie Ann Yemsi also exhibited some of his canvases, for the first time, in France at the Palais de Tokyo. It was at this show specifically that I was particularly impressed by a painting from 2015 entitled, in contemporary fashion, “#mydressmychoice”.
It depicts a reclining nude woman buried beneath layers of earth with men presiding overhead where only their feet can be seen. She is “elegantly” suffocated and trampled on.
From 19 May 2022, and therefore during the Art Basel fair, the Kunsthalle in Basel is due to exhibit the highly anticipated new work from Michael Armitage. This will feature around fifteen paintings made over the past two and a half years, which he describes in the video interview.
Hans Ulrich Obrist
It was also possible to see his work on show in Madrid until 1 March. There, under the curatorship of Hans Ulrich Obrist (see here and here other interviews of Hans Ulrich Obrist), he displayed paintings and drawings which were, as he explains, “the personal stories of different people”.
Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo
The group of works corresponded to an initiative of the collector and president of the foundation in Turin which bears her name, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, who stages an exhibition every year at the same time as the Arco contemporary art fair in collaboration with Isabela Mora, who has the task of finding an extraordinary space in the Spanish capital, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist. Ian Cheng spectacularly inaugurated the project prior to the pandemic.
This year it’s the Real Academia in Madrid, with its collection of Goya paintings and prints, which has been chosen to host Armitage. The exhibition thus juxtaposes the drawing works by the latter with the prints made by the Spanish master (see here the article on Goya at the Beyeler Foundation) while also displaying his paintings in dialogue with the historic 1975 film “Xala”. It has been made by Ousmane Sembene (1923-2007), Senegalese filmmaker, writer and activist whose style in the written narrative is reminiscent of that of the genius 31-year-old Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, who has just received France’s top literary award, the Prix Goncourt.
It tells the story of a nouveau bourgeois businessman in postcolonial Africa who seems to have it all, including the arrival of a third wife, until the Xala, a spell which is put on him that leaves him impotent and brings about his bankruptcy.
Armitage shares with Sembene this way of infusing his representations with social meaning, such as in one of the five paintings displayed at Madrid’s Real Academia. It features a young woman in an interior scene, naked and staring boldly, her legs raised up on her seat.
All she wants is to get married
There are little monkeys animating the composition, like in the old masters paintings in which these animals mimicked human attitudes. On the curtain placed behind his heroine Armitage has written the words: “All she wants is to get married”. This is a way of addressing the importance that marriage still has for men and women in Kenyan society today.
Art history and Lubugo
While Michael Armitage is steeped in art history in terms of his references – the tones he uses could be seen to be reminiscent of Gauguin’s – he makes all of his paintings not on canvas but on Lubugo bark cloth from a tree that can be found in Uganda.
Holes in the surface
This detail may seem inconsequential, but not only does it have a powerful symbolism, this unique material also presents holes in its surface which are used by the painter. They create strange gaps that communicate other messages.
Michael Armitage has set up a foundation with the aim of supporting artistic creation in Nairobi, The Nairobi contemporary art institute. T-shirts have been created by ArtCollab, directed by Eugenio Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, for the occasion of the Madrid exhibition in support of this initiative.
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