Black Lives Matter. We stand in solidarity with those affected by generations of structural violence. You can help »

The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues
SEPT 2020 Issue
Art In Conversation

MICHAEL ARMITAGE with Toby Kamps

“Painting in particular for me feels as much a part of my life as eating or breathing.”

Portrait of Michael Armitage, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui
Portrait of Michael Armitage, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui

Michael Armitage was born in Nairobi and lives and works there and in London. Kenya and East Africa are the central subjects of his paintings. Working in oil on Lubugo, a traditional bark cloth from Uganda, Armitage paints political and cultural life, urban and natural landscapes, and the wild mélange of wildlife, history, mythology, internet gossip and pop culture dance crazes that define those places. His colors and imagery are dreamlike, but the work touches on Kenya’s sometimes harsh reality: its social unrest and extreme disparities in wealth. Illuminating the life and spirit of his place of birth is his goal, and he’s said, “Painting is a way of thinking through something, trying to understand an experience or an event a little better, and trying to communicate something of the problem to others.”

Since receiving his BA in Fine Art from the Slade School of Fine Art, London, in 2007 and a postgraduate diploma from the Royal Academy in 2010, Armitage has had an exciting decade. He’s had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, the South London Gallery, the Turner Contemporary in Margate (UK), the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in California, and a project room at MoMA in collaboration with the Studio Museum in Harlem. He’s also been featured in major group exhibitions around the world, including the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019, Prospect.4 in New Orleans in 2017, and the 13th Biennale de Lyon in France in 2015, to name only a few.

Michael Armitage, Mydas, 2019. Oil on Lubugo bark cloth, 86 5/8 x 66 15/16 inches. © Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

Toby Kamps (Rail): Could you describe your artistic origin story, how you got your start?

Michael Armitage: How did I begin?

Rail: Yes.

Armitage: [Laughs] I began as most begin, drawing, as a child. From the first time—as perhaps a typical boy would—I drew a jet plane or a car or something like that and it looked remotely like a car, I was hooked and that was it. Instead of running around, I began spending a lot of time just drawing, really. And slowly that bled into school time, and then I was very lucky to have a dedicated teacher who would allow me to come around on weekends and set me up with projects to do, which I loved. And then I began painting when I was 10 or 11 years old. So it’s funny because painting in particular for me feels as much a part of my life as eating or breathing. It’s become integral to who I am and how I live in this world, so it’s not something that I question on that level. It’s become a kind of way of existing.

Rail: When did you move to the UK?

Armitage: I first came over here when I was 12. I went to boarding school in Northern England, which really wasn’t for me, and I lasted about three months and then went back to Kenya. I then came back again when I was 16 to a boarding school where I finished the last two years of school, and then I studied in London from 2002 for about eight years. I started at the Byam Shaw School of Art for a foundation course, then went to the Slade, and then the Royal Academy for my postgraduate, and I’ve been between London and Nairobi ever since then.

Rail: Were you always a figurative painter?

Armitage: I certainly was when I started, seeing as I was six. Throughout art school, throughout my BA foundation course, I was basically making figurative paintings. Then I got to a point at the beginning of my postgraduate where I was questioning the use of the figure in painting. I was questioning all of the elements that make up a painting, down to image, support, color, material, ideas. At that point, I took the figure out of my paintings, and I began making abstract compositions that sometimes related to figures but were much more loose explorations of ideas. Ideas that I’m still thinking about and working on today.

But then, after working mainly as an abstract painter for the best part of three years, I began thinking about the relevance of art in Kenya and in East Africa. One of the things that was clear to me was that there isn’t a huge audience there, certainly not a kind of gallery-going audience. So if I wanted to make my paintings have a kind of immediacy and relevance to someone there that walked in off the street, one way of doing that would be to have a reflection of the people that I was interested in talking to. So that made me consider putting the figure back into my work. As soon as I started on that, it was a real shift because I had been through a difficult few years with my practice where, because I was questioning everything, I doubted anything that I enjoyed making, and jettisoned parts of my practice that felt frivolous or excessive to what I wanted to get across. I cut out a lot of things that for me are quite important, not only to my practice, but to an enjoyment in making, which I think is perhaps something that I hadn’t really understood: how necessary it was for me to be excited by the process of making paintings—to find something revelatory about the practice through the practice. The figure was certainly one of those things.

Michael Armitage, Enasoit, 2019. Oil on Lubugo bark cloth, 66 15/16 x 118 1/8 inches. © Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

Then the question was: if it is going to be a figure how do you represent the figure? How abstract should the figure be? I started making quite flat-colored figures thinking about the work of Jacob Lawrence, of Bob Thompson, and I was taken by the ambition of Lawrence’s Migration Series and the idea that as an artist you can try in effect to describe an entire culture through a series of paintings and, in so doing, talk about humanity on so many levels, whether it’s incredibly basic or much more nuanced. That group of paintings had a huge effect on me when I was thinking about bringing figures back to my work. Since then the evolution changed and is still changing from one body of work to the next, the way the figure is represented and painted.

Rail: You mentioned thinking about an audience in Kenya, and you still maintain a studio there, but it seems like you do drawing and idea-gathering in Nairobi and the preponderance of your painting here in London. Can you talk about what it’s like to live in both of these worlds and how your process is different in these two places?

Armitage: In terms of effect on the work and on the actual painting, I don’t feel like it has that much of an effect, with the exception being when I’m in London because of the museums and the collections that are here. There’s access to the entirety of Western art history and to some pretty extraordinary paintings on your doorstep, so when you’re looking for a little bit of help with a painting, you can very easily go out and find a whole plethora of artists trying to resolve, through their own means, one issue or another. And I suppose in many ways that’s actually one of the things that’s kind of beautiful about being a painter. You’re constantly living alongside history. At the end of the day, you’re dealing with the same matter as your predecessors, and you’re trying to make something active and relevant in the same way that artists 600 years ago were. So that tradition has a constant presence. And I think it was Guston who spoke about that beautifully in his quote: As you continue working, one artist leaves the studio after another. But to be able to go about that—effectively putting those artists in the studio in the first place by being able to see their work in the flesh—feels like one of the biggest privileges of being a painter working in London. In terms of subjects and research, all of that, the kind of on-the-ground, more nuanced aspects of my practices happens when I’m back in Kenya.

And the drawings, some of which are behind me now, are usually made from either life or from photographic sources—stuff that I’ve taken, stuff that other people have taken, or from videos and things that I find online. So really I don’t actually feel that geography has an effect on the paintings when they’re being made because that’s actually quite an insular act. But it certainly does have an effect on allowing me to reflect on certain subjects from a different context, which in many ways is something that I would like my paintings to do in themselves—to provide a space for reflection.

Rail: You’ve described your use of Lubugo bark cloth as a kind of breakthrough. When did you discover it, and can you talk about what it opened up for you, and what it is too?

Armitage: So I was making these horrendous paintings. They were these kinds of scribbles on woven palm leaf mats. The thing with them was that, whenever I looked at them, they looked exactly like what they were, which was paint on a woven palm leaf mat. And there was this thing where the surface began to dominate. The surface itself became a sort of fetish object and that completely took away from all the other things a painting can do. It became a very crude gesture. So I started looking for lots of different materials, and when I was walking around a tourist store with a friend of mine who was visiting me in Nairobi, I came across a guy who was selling placemats. You know, something to put your beer on to soak up stains in the evenings or for your plates and dinnerware at night. When I saw that I immediately thought, “Hang on a sec, that’s interesting as a material because it’s kind of like a canvas.” So I then started researching it, and that took me quite a long time because I found out the process for making the cloth is protected by UNESCO. I went through UNESCO in Nairobi trying to figure out if I could get some, and I spent around six months being sent in circles not getting anywhere. So I asked an uncle of mine who’s Ugandan—who is Baganda, the people who make the cloth—and he put me in touch with his brother-in-law who then put me in touch with the guys who make it, out in the bush, and I started getting quite a lot of it through them, through that quite circuitous route, which is much more direct than through UNESCO. That’s when I first got the material. It’s such a beautiful material in its own right. There’s a lot of work that goes into every single piece. As it’s the outer bark of the tree which has a lot of holes, it has a lot of irregularities. Every single sheet has its own character. Through the process of the tree [“Mutuba” or Ficus natalensis] being stripped, soaked, burned, beaten—you end up with a flat cloth, but one that has a lot of irregularities. And because of the holes in it, the guys who make it stitch it up so the cloth has all of these beautiful little marks and repairs in it, which are sewn with a single blade of grass. So I had this thing that had this enormous amount of work going into it and was incredibly beautiful, so I didn’t really want to cover it in paint, and when I put it on the wall, it began to function just like the woven palm leaf mats. It was another fetishization: the ground was something different to canvas, and you couldn’t really see the painting as the ground was dominant. The eureka moment, however pathetic and small, was when I realized that if I stretched the cloth over a normal stretcher and primed it, it began to operate just like a normal canvas, and the kind of subversion and dislocation of the painting that was going on, on top of it became much more subtle and interesting to me. It began to reflect the complexities of cultural dynamics at home that I was interested in exploring. So that must have been 2012 that I first started using it like this, and since then it’s been a slow evolution. At the time when I started using it, I was still very much thinking about Jacob Lawrence and paintings made of very flat areas of color. And then, just by thinking through ideas of exoticism and self-exoticism and the effect of representing oneself to another culture, no matter how close or far—that meant that I began thinking about the language of the painting differently. I wanted to bring in elements of exoticism into its language, but in this case it was embedded within the structure of the painting itself.

Michael Armitage, Elephants, 2015. Oil on Lubugo bark cloth, 67 x 87 inches. © Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (George Darrell).

Rail: You felt that using Lubugo cloth both located and destabilized the paintings, making them perhaps both European easel painting but also something distinctly different with an African origin. Speaking about exoticism, too, you’ve said that Gauguin is your mentor. Can you elaborate on that? He’s sort of the ultimate exoticizer, isn’t he?

Armitage: I’ve been asked this. I actually didn’t correct this when we discussed your questions earlier, just simply because I’ve been asked this so many times, and it’s a misquote. Gauguin was not my mentor and [laughs] I didn’t—

Rail: It’s all over the place, I apologize.

Armitage: No, no, no. I wanted you to say that because I think it’s a kind of—somebody had said that about me, that Gauguin was like a mentor, which again was a misunderstanding of what I was saying. It is—and it isn’t, really—because in many ways the education I feel that I have in painting is from a handful of friends that I studied with, and then looking at other people’s paintings. Gauguin for me was a really important artist because, exactly like you said, he’s kind of the king of the exotic. But also, he’s interesting because of his idea of himself and his exoticization of this other culture and because he saw himself in a way as that—an exoticizer. You know, there were huge issues around Gauguin and the way he lived his life, having 13-year-old wives and spreading STDs to the communities he went to. Issues like that are for me embedded in the idea of the exotic. Sex is embedded in the idea of the exotic; taking advantage of another culture is embedded in the idea of the exotic; presenting yourself without your own history to another culture is also in the idea of the exotic—so that both sides function as the outsider wants them to be. Things then very quickly begin to fall apart, but the kind of impulses behind wanting something or someone to be exotic, playing up to that was interesting to me because of the way tourism worked and because of the impact of development on the cultures at home. There was a real kind of strange symmetry to that. And so, to use aspects of Gauguin’s paintings which were unmistakably his and which made his work seem “exotic” was important because I really wanted to explore how far that dumbing-down effect goes, how much the cliché inhibits what you’re looking at, how much one’s own ideas of “this is from another place”—or its colors—reaffirm that. This was important because cliché makes it easy to disassociate yourself from another, there is an emotional distance created, and often a hierarchy, where the exoticised subject or culture is defined through narratives of being primitive, under developed, corrupt, or even beautiful—but never given the space to be every bit as complicated and interesting as the viewer and their culture.

Again, I was interested in Gauguin seeing himself as exotic—as opposed to looking at it the other way around—where someone from home would look to the English with some sense of reverence, perhaps because of the way that colonialism worked and the way its racial elements were developed to create this idea that the colonizer was a better person. I wasn’t interested in trying to deal with that aspect of it because, for me, the thing that I felt was really slippery from my position as a Kenyan—as a Kenyan Brit but as a Kenyan growing up within Kikuyu culture and British culture—were the points at which my culture, begins to parody itself and loses its purpose and meaning. I saw exoticism, however overt and however subtle, as being a really key aspect of that.

Rail: You’ve mentioned Jacob Lawrence and his painting cycle illustrating the great African American migration from the South to the industrialized North. You know it’s an ambitious thing to try to look at and understand a culture. It’s a grand undertaking, to recognize human differences and similarities. And, as you say, the way there is filled with pitfalls, but I’ve always felt the reason we are here on earth is to try to figure it all out? And I think that your work makes a beautiful attempt at that kind of grand interpretive project. Would you mind talking about a few of your paintings and telling us what’s going on in them?

Michael Armitage, Bats, 2019. Ink on paper, 9 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches. © Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

Armitage: Sure. The Fourth Estate (2017) came from going to the last opposition rally in Kenya during the 2017–2018 elections. I have been interested in public displays of power dynamics for a number of years, and had made another painting called And so it is 3,200.00 (2015) that thinks through the give-and-take of politics and the point at which you commit to following a leader. So I wanted to go along to this rally to feel it alive and in practice. I joined one of the local news stations called K24 Nairobi News, and they took me along to film this rally. I was supposed to do one of the opposition and one of the incumbent’s rallies, but they shortened the rally period before voting, so I was only able to attend one rally. When we got there in the morning it must have been 10 am, and there are already 5 or 6,000 people in Uhuru Park, which overlooks the city. It’s one of our central parks, and it’s really beautiful as well. One section of Uhuru Park is a hillside with a couple of large dead trees, one of which is in this painting. If you are on that hillside and you look down, there’s a sort of gazebo area with a stage, which is where a lot of political functions and other events take place. We got there, and it was already pretty carnivalesque. There were guys who were dressed up. I still haven’t figured out what was behind the visual decisions of the opposition’s clothing, but they dressed their supporters up as clowns with these kind of glowing, orange clown hair outfits, and in superhero outfits, and one guy had da Vinci’s Last Supper hanging from his neck—and above Jesus’s head, the opposition leader was floating awkwardly, along with a couple of his sidekicks. And then just the sound: vuvuzelas blowing all over the place, the music was extraordinary as well—a lot of stuff that was made specifically for the rallies. There were pop musicians playing. The sound and the atmosphere was overwhelming to the point that, although I’m describing these things now, when I got there I was just taken, not by the visuals, but just by the feeling of being part of something. And it felt like something positive. Then as the day went on, I did a radio interview in which I had to verbally describe what we were seeing. As I started describing the scene, it started to sound like I was describing a Goya painting or etching. There were guys perched in the tree, and there was this bizarre visual metaphor where the tree behind was filled with Marabou storks, which are these enormous scavengers. And then onstage you had the politicians start belching these quite acidic ideas and whipping up discontent and hatred and the language of revolution, which was really at odds with the feeling of the rally before they started speaking. That was when it got really intense. But you had all of these different elements, and when I was describing them I could see these equivalences throughout art history. However bizarre and specific this moment and this type of expression of political support felt, it seemed like it had been represented already. And that became really interesting to me. So the image of these guys in the tree became singed into my memory and my imagination through the process of describing it.

As this rally went on, and the different politicians started speaking—junior and then more senior as the event went on—the crowd built up. And I mean, it must have been 50 or 60,000 people at that point. Where I was, with the guys from K24 News, was a kind of press area up front, and there was a huge surge when the leader arrived, as everyone who had been waiting the entire day pushed to try and get to the front of the stage. We ended up trying to protect the satellite for the feed by holding a metal bar against all these pushing guys who, you know, some of them were trying to shove lollipops into my mouth and laughing because, you know, saying “Mzungu, Mzungu,” which means white person; foreigner. And they were laughing at the fact that I was there, not taking photos of them, but just trying to chat while holding this bar. One of the deepest impressions of that day came afterwards from the photos that I was sent by the photojournalists I was with, in which the guys from the rally who had been wearing the most visually striking outfits turned up in photographs from other rallies all over the country. They were in all these different rallies, and were kind of this paid little gang that went around whipping up the emotion of the entire scene. But also, when things did turn violent—as sometimes they did—they were the guys who were throwing stones and being shot at by police. And that really was something that made me begin to question this whole idea of support. And then you have, obviously, the impact of the state and policing on the supporters. From those photos and from the experience of the day, the next year and a half’s worth of paintings developed. So this was the very first in that group of paintings. And again, I’m not interested in it being about political characters. For me, it wasn’t important that it was Raila Odinga or Uhuru Kenyatta or whoever was the politician. I didn’t want these paintings to be bits of political propaganda. I was more interested in “the people”—the supporters. And so, I started thinking, how can I represent a politician or a leader in this context? Especially from the point of view of an onlooker who—given the dark rhetoric from that day—would find the leader repulsive and question how and why anyone would support them. But from the point of view of the followers, their leader was their representative and figurehead. And so I started thinking about George Orwell’s Animal Farm, as well as the history of painting in Kenya where animals play a really significant role when they’re talking about politics, and that’s where the toad came in and became my stand-in leader for the paintings. So that’s the set up where you end up with what perhaps looks like a surreal scene. But it is very much a painting of what was there.

Rail: Does the frog have cultural significance, or is it just your emblem of this sort of repulsive yet absolutely mesmerizing leader?

Armitage: No, the frog doesn’t have a cultural significance in Kenya that I was referring to.

Michael Armitage, Baboon, 2016. Oil on Lubugo bark cloth, 59 1/16 x 78 3/4 inches. © Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby).

Rail: There is another painting, The Promised Land (2019), which seems to depict what you’ve called an almost a quasi-religious aspect to some of these rallies.

Armitage: Yeah, totally. Every time the leader came out, he would say, “I’m going to lead you to Canaan, to the Promised Land, just come and vote for me.” This is hardly original political rhetoric, but for some reason it seems to work time and time again. Maybe that’s what we’re all looking for. So I wanted to explore that idea in a painting that showed these different stages of support and its evolution. This came out of the photographs that I was sent by the journalists, as opposed to the images that I had collected and seen that day, with the exception of the little boy in the bottom left. He was scurrying around the stage, picking stuff up on that day. But in addition, I also wanted the threat and the presence of policing, and the effect of that at home in Kenya, to be an obvious presence, even if I didn’t represent it explicitly. I wanted the teargas to be the thing that transformed these figures from just guys who were marching and shouting for their side carrying banners into the guys who took a much more violent form of protest or support and took on the authorities. And, as for the banner, I was thinking of it having some sort of seductive ideological text, similar to the idea of the promised land. But then I was thinking, how can you represent a seductive ideology, which isn’t questioned enough, without painting a slogan onto it? So I started considering Western canons in painting of the female nude in Western art history, and how that was this seductive idea over time and operating in different ways, sometimes subversive and sometimes affirmative. And so I thought that would be my call to arms for these guys, the seductive ideology that they were following.

It was also important to have the image of the girl sitting up on the balcony. She was based on a 10-year-old girl named Mercy, who was shot by a stray bullet when some of the protestors—the guys from the rally, who’d been followed by the police back to one of the slums in Nairobi—there was a standoff and shooting, and this young girl was killed. And she had absolutely nothing to do with it. I wanted her presence to be part of the painting. So it really came out of thinking about trying to make a history painting. In a sense, that’s the kind of genre that I was envisioning while I was trying to deal with real events. And one of the things I liked about history paintings is that they’re often evoked almost entirely from the artist’s imagination. However much they’re supposed to be representing a history, they’re often, if you think of Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867–1869)extraordinarily simple compositions. Maximilian is getting shot. The scene: mechanized forces, wall, kids at the back, little hill on the side. There’s something about how anonymous the setting is, yet how specific the action is. That for me was really key to trying to do something similar to a history painting. Manet gives you so much space to be there. To be anywhere, in that painting…Maximilian. So yeah, those were the kind of things I was thinking about.

Rail: Can you talk about Midas?

Armitage: I was taken by the story of Midas. It’s so familiar. Everyone knows about the Midas touch. But I was taken by the story when rereading it recently and the fact that Midas was a ruler with such good intentions—and so much hope for what he could do. His wish that everything that he touched would turn to gold wasn’t just about greed. It was also about helping his people in a time of drought. That there was this blinding desire to help and to do good, that then—in the way that the Greek gods play their tricks—turned out to be the most fateful thing the guy could have done. He isolated himself, turned his family into inanimate statues. He repented immediately but was given ass’s ears as punishment for his actions. And he had to hide that, hiding the shame that came from basically wanting to do good. I was interested in the point where he was told if he washes with red wine, he would have the infamous golden touch—because that was the single most hopeful point in the entire story, that point of contact with wine to skin. I wanted to set this painting somewhere in northern Kenya, an area that’s prone to drought, where there are a lot of very difficult day-to-day lives and politics, and where you could almost imagine somebody trying to give up everything for a solution—no matter how complicated and problematic—that would clear all their problems.

This figure of Midas came about after going to Venice for the Biennale and seeing Titian’s Pietà, which must be the single greatest bit of painting I’ve ever come across. And every single figure is unique in it. They’re not unique because they look different; they’re unique because they're each painted differently. There are moments when Christ’s body is almost dematerializing in front of you because of how he’s painted. There are these extraordinarily quick—or apparently quick—gestures, that describe Mary, that describe some of the other figures, that describe the lions at the base of the columns that lead into this kind of extraordinary little passageway. He’s painting a family history and story into it. There are all these different ways of bringing a painting together: architectural elements and elusive aspects of space. I was thinking, like, how can I try and take that on? In it, again, I really wanted to have the figures be specific to themselves inasmuch as they are individuals. But at the end of the day, a character in a painting is just paint. So you’ve got to be specific in the paint. That’s kind of how I was thinking about this. (Just in case anyone thinks that’s a leopard or a hyena, it’s actually a cheetah.)

Michael Armitage, The Fourth Estate, 2017. Oil on Lubugo bark cloth, 129 15/16 x 78 3/4 inches. © Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (George Darrell).

Midas is also linked to Enasoit (2019). The landscape in the background is the same. So this painting came out of thinking about landscape and its representation. That’s one of the less-expressed preoccupations that I’ve had about place, where what really got me interested was the idea of the sublime. For me, to walk in an empty landscape at home, I never had that sense of, “Oh my god, this is so wonderful!” It was more like fear. What’s in that bush? Is there somebody hiding, or is there an animal in there? A big open landscape was a threat. I found that my idea of paradise is a kept garden as opposed to paradise being a wild place. This probably comes in part from growing up in the city. And I suppose industrialization also turned wild landscapes into kept gardens.

Rail: Enasoit is kind of a kept garden, isn’t it? It’s a high-end game park, right?

Armitage: Yeah, exactly. Enasoit was interesting to me on lots of different levels. When the colonials got to Kenya and did their thing, they were looking for some people to show them around. A lot of the guys they took on were Samburu or Maasai. This is their home. It was interesting when I was talking to the Samburu guys. I’d ask them, “So what were you guys up to, in that time? How come we never hear about you fighting the colonials?” You hear about the Kalenjins, you hear about the Kikuyus, you hear about all these different cultures in Kenya that stood up and fought. But these guys said, “Well, you know, land has never been something that we owned. We’re passing, we’re nomadic. We have our cows and that’s it.” So when the colonists came and settled here, it really didn’t bother us that much because at the end of the day, they weren’t taking our cows.” So it was interesting that for them land was something totally different.

Additionally, now, this landscape and part of Kenya is very much contested. Because all the herders—the Samburu herders—are trying to come back onto the land to graze their herds of thousands of cattle when it’s dry, and they can’t get there because it’s now all private ranches and game reserves. There’s a lot of sociopolitical tension there. So I was interested in the idea of how land functions, but then also how it’s represented, and specifically where, if you look at paintings from people that celebrate the colonial legacy in Kenya, the land is often represented in a romantic, quite realistic manner. It’s about the space—the big sky, the big open vistas, the fantasy of the safari. It fulfils all of these romantic ideas, whereas when you look at many of the landscapes that are painted by Kenyans, the landscape is almost like another character. It’s almost like it’s abstracted and is not there to make you go, “Ah! So beautiful!” It’s there because it’s as important as any figure. And in a way it’s as alive as the figure. And the other thing that I was interested in when talking to the guys at Enasoit was that there had been this incredible battle there a couple hundred years ago, and many, many Samburu died. They called the place where it happened “Enasoit,” which means “this rock.” And this rock was none of the dramatic hills in the landscape, It was a small rock. But it had great significance. But it wasn’t the big open landscape, it was its cultural symbolism that was interesting. In the background—in the hills of this landscape—was a cave which had all kinds of extraordinary ancient paintings, and was the original reason for my visit. The paintings date back to approximately 4,000 years ago, and some of them have been added to as recently as 200 years ago. Not only that, but it’s as if some of them have been redrawn and redrawn for hundreds of years—they fill the cave. The most recent ones are done in white ash and goat fat. I was imagining it at night: you have this cave blackened from the soot of fires, millenia worth of fires. Just imagine the flames reflecting off the white of the ash. It would be extraordinary and luminous. But again, when I asked some of the Samburu guys about it, the answer for me was super interesting. I was asking, you know, what do these things mean, the cave paintings? And the answer was, “Well, our ancestors weren’t that great at drawing. So this is a bad giraffe.” It made me think that this is a cultural history we are losing that is really important, for us, for Kenya, for any country that has an extraordinary, drawn history. It is shocking that 4,000 years of painting—the symbolic language in the caves—could be so quickly forgotten and dismissed. It’s bonkers, you know! It’s absolutely crazy. So I wanted to kind of bring those cave paintings, however indecipherable they are, into a painting.

Michael Armitage, The Promised Land, 2019. Oil on Lubugo bark cloth, 86 5/8 x 165 3/8 inches. © Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

Q&A


Cal McKeever: Great. Alright, well our first question comes from Brian Kilt.

Brian: My question is: I know you sit with the drawings you work from for a long time. What’s the longest you’ve ever sat with an image on the backburner before it’s gone onto your painting, and how do you find that the discourse between the drawn mark and the painted mark expresses itself on your bark cloth canvases?

Armitage: Yeah, that’s so interesting. There’s a couple drawings that I have that I know will be useful—and I’ve been saying this to myself for maybe 15 years—so I’m still waiting on them to find their place and their moment. But as for ones that I’ve actually used, for example, in my first year on my postgraduate, so that was 2007, I made this drawing of a hornbill, and it became a tile of four different hornbills from this kind of creation myth, and I’ve just used that again and again. Because it, for me, it’s operated on so many different levels, and also how abstract it is makes it versatile and useful in painting. And then it has its own story and history. But the question about mark and drawing going into painting is super interesting because I hadn’t really understood how different it was to draw with a pencil as to painting something. So when I started drawing using this ink called Prout’s ink, which you can re-wet and work again. It’s amazing stuff. You can leave your drawing for something like three days and come back and still work into it. When I started using that and was using the brush to make the mark, the movement and that kind of quite calligraphic way that you can increase and decrease pressure to get a mark to do something and be expressive is still there, it translated into the paintings and kept my arm fluid for when I was painting in the studio again.

So to answer your question, drawing really is quite different. I also think about the criticisms of Titian at the time, how “basically he wasn’t that great a drawer,” but he could paint pretty well. Seeing that, and then seeing someone who was perhaps a little bit too good at drawing, and the painting suffers as a result—like Michelangelo—seeing what not having drawing in painting does, and just allowing the paint to embody the character fully, or to embody a space and only rely on tone and color to describe something is really awkward. Like, I find Titian so awkward. Everything’s kind of together, and relies on each other in a way that is very very difficult to do, but extraordinary if it does happen. Yeah, that question of drawing and painting is something that's alive in my mind and I’m always thinking about it but have no kind of definitive answer. Thank you.

Brian: Yeah, I don’t think there really is one, but it was good to get your opinion on it. Thanks.

Armitage: Yeah, cool. Thanks for the question.

McKeever: Alright, our next question comes from Noel Kernan, who asked me to ask the question. So, they said, “I’m interested to know if Michael sees differences in the reactions to his work in Kenya, the UK, and the US? And also—each Lubago bark has specific physical characteristics, and to what extent do the characteristics of a specific bark influence a painting?”

Armitage: One of the most fulfilling things, as I very rarely get to show my work at home—in fact, I haven’t done an exhibition in Kenya—was doing a presentation to some school kids. At that time, I was making some work thinking about this musician, Diamond Platnumz, and “Baikoko” (2018) and seeing there was still a kind of relevance, that was super cool, because the sociopolitical dimension of the work was kind of alive and relevant. So that was really cool, whereas other aspects of the paintings have less of an impact like that, but maybe work in stronger ways. Those kids wouldn’t have been thinking about Gauguin at all. They wouldn’t be thinking about exoticism, all that nonsense. Whereas if I showed that in a context where the language of Gauguin is kind of relevant and important, that becomes another aspect of the painting. And I suppose one of the most unusual conversations I’ve had in terms of a geographical difference in painting was while showing some work in Hong Kong. The criticism I had there was about the spirituality of the composition—even that, as an idea, is heavy. It’s extraordinary, just that a composition is spiritual, and of course it is. It’s about relationships, spatial relationships, psychological relationships, the entire imagined space a painting occupies when it’s off the wall and in your mind. That was super interesting. There are loads of different ways of reading a painting, and there are loads of different ways culture affects that reading. I feel incredibly lucky to have people respond to me from those different positions, because I always feel it also makes me think about my work differently. And I’ve also forgotten the second part of that question.

McKeever: The second part was, each Lubugo bark has specific physical characteristics. To what extent do those characteristics of a specific bark influence the painting?

Armitage: Yeah, sometimes it’s quite major, and other times it’s more subtle. The time that cloth has really affected one of my paintings was with the painting Anthill (2017). I had stretched a cloth and left it for about two years because it was so heavily deformed. It had deep pockets and the surface was really rough. You couldn’t just stick a face in it because of all the flaws. It was impossible to paint. It was very difficult, compositionally, to figure out how to use it without it being too corny. I mean, I find a lot of the moments where my paintings do use this kind of physical relief element of the surface to be super corny. And sometimes I really understand why people paint on flat surfaces usually. So I had this stretcher up for ages and then I started making this group of paintings thinking about these exorcisms in Tanzania. I’d heard descriptions of what was being expelled from the women that were having these exorcisms: naked old ladies riding hyenas or flying in baskets coming out of anthills. And, totally unconnected, I had made this anthill drawing a few years back, in the landscape, and hadn’t used it and didn’t really know when I would. Suddenly just having that drawing there, reading this particular description, and then having the surface of that cloth, and how uncannily the holes in the painting matched up to the holes in the anthill that I had drawn there was a way forward into a painting. That totally determined the size of the anthill in the painting. And I’m grateful for it cause there’s no way I would have made it that big and awkward. And it was really difficult to get my head around it because it totally dominated. It dominated the painting; it dominated the narrative, and it really made me think about how to bring the women and the three shetani spirit figures into the composition. So sometimes it’s a major factor like that and other times it’s much more subtle. Thank you.

McKeever: Our next question comes from Constanza.

Constanza: Hello.

Armitage: Hi.

Constanza: My question is actually super simple. In your work—beside the importance of your subjects, which are very strong, and the fluidity of your paint—I can’t help but be really touched by the colors that you use and how they flow. Obviously, color is always very important, but I was just curious about your approach to it, and how you study it and make your choices in your palette.

Armitage: Thank you, yeah. Colors…colors kind of evolved for me. When I started making paintings again, thinking about exoticism, I really wanted to have the color palette reference that sort of painting. But now that I’ve had a little bit of time, I feel like the palette is evolving and is much more intuitive, and much less dictated by a conceptual idea. I was really interested in how someone like Seurat talks about color. How Matisse was interested in color and this idea that colors together change each other. Each changes how the other works, and they change what they themselves are doing. I was also interested in, again, someone like Jacob Lawrence from a color perspective. His choices are so direct and necessary for the subject, and so I started thinking about color in that sense. I feel like I’ve got a really long way to go with color. I feel like such a novice when I’m messing around, and always just trying to see how dissonant two colors can be together, how complementary they can be together, what it does to something that’s familiar to change its color. How far can you go with something feeling recognizable and true? How simple can you be? How crude a decision can you make? So it's kind of an involved thing for me. But I’m really enjoying the fact that it’s become, I feel, as if that aspect of my practice has been absorbed into the intuitive aspect of making work. Because on the other side—approaching it conceptually—there’s only so far that you can go, and it’s no longer surprising. You’re working off something that’s already there. Thanks for the question.

McKeever: Next, we have a question from our very own Phong H. Bui. If you’d like to unmute yourself.

Bui: Thank you Cal. Thank you Michael, Toby. Just following Constanza’s question, Michael. She used the word “fluidity,” which I think is a very accurate way to describe your work. But as you mentioned Manet early on, the Maximilian painting (1867–69), he made four versions of it, and they were shown in New York. John Elderfield curated that show in 2006, and I saw it and interviewed John. It just occurred to me that what he’s able to do—in addition to referencing Goya—is to compel the viewer to look at his subject. History painting has a tendency to create an aura of theatricality. But as you know, it’s always been very difficult to control both a sense of theatricality, which needs a certain stability through neoclassicism David and Ingres were very good at that—but at the same time an exotic use of color or the aspiration to a color palette which belonged to the romantic movement—this is why Delacroix or David or Ingres would never get along, never get along! [Laughs] The way in which your imagery is painted with a certain fluidity and a large scale reminds me of Neo Rauch’s paintings. Neo is one of the few painters who can undertake historical painting or narrative rhythm on that scale and have the same fluidity of imagery. But his are a bit more painterly in a different way than yours. So, my question is that, ultimately, to have the image painted and drawn at the same time simultaneously—and I don’t know how you do it. So that’s basically the question.

Armitage: It’s a really tricky question, and this is probably how I usually answer questions, by answering a different question, because basically I think that it’s the automatic parts of painting—what a painting asks of you as the person who’s making it—which are really difficult to think through. Because if you have a subject—and this is also mostly why I’m always adamant that a painting isn’t about something—even if the paintings I was talking about evolve out of a particular instant, the painting itself is not about that instant. It is the painting—it is the thing itself—and that’s because a painting does that: it asks that of you and I feel I’ve got to follow that part of painting, because that’s when it also teaches you something and it shows you aspects of a narrative, aspects of color choice, aspects of compositional choice that you can’t second guess, that you can’t dictate from the beginning. It’s an incredibly humbling and difficult part of painting because, once again, it shows you, or certainly it shows me, how well other people have painted [laughs], to be able to do the sort of things that they do—and also that, personally as a painter, I’ve got a hell of long way to go. And I’ve got a lot to learn and need a lot more experimenting and time because the process can be very unsatisfying, but it keeps you hungry. I hear athletes talk about their craft in the same way. There’s something satisfying in it, but then there isn’t because you need it again, you need more. It’s really quite intense like that, so to talk about an automatic aspect of painting is really to talk about the thing itself and that can only be done through paint, you know? I would find it very hard to verbalize what on earth is going on in that process.

Bui: Yeah, I don’t mean to put you on the spot Michael, but you know how it is. For example, you take Picasso’s Guernica. He made it in ’37. He tried to replicate that similar idea in 1951 in Massacre in Korea, which has the same composition as Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian—but that painting is very mechanistic. It fails on so many levels. So my question, again, is: can any form of repetition or replication of an image from one painting to the next be borrowed? Can it be recalibrated in different forms? Reconfigured in different forms?

Michael Armitage, Study (Lake Nakuru), 2019. Ink on paper, 12 3/16 x 18 1/2 inches. © Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

Armitage: Yeah, for sure. I find it really interesting because, just on a personal level, I find it very difficult to do. I find it interesting when painters find an image and then work that image again and again, or discover a very solid format, and they do it, not necessarily over a long period of time, but they do it really intensely. When you see that, you really do see the other side of the painting. You begin to see, in a very obvious way, the part of the painting that isn’t about “I have this image and I’m going to represent something,” you know? It’s about what the paint itself is and what it’s doing and how that changes the character. In fact, throughout his practice, that’s one of the things I find really fascinating about a painter like Peter Doig—that he can have the same motif for 15 years, and there is still something else that’s happening there. And sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail, but sometimes the ones that feel like they’re failing have the most interesting painting in them. I say this as a painter geeking out over what another painter’s doing. But in a way I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Guernica [laughs]. I think it’s an epic, epic painting and it’s awesome—it’s totally out of this world—but it’s also Picasso because it’s so damn crude. It’s so overly confident. Everything about it is like, “I’m big, I’m doing it. This is going to be it.” And it works, and it is an extraordinary painting, but then when I think about a painter like Paul Nash, the English painter, who made Totes Meer (Dead Sea) in 1940–41, which is this extraordinary painting of the sea, but it’s also the wings of airplanes. The crests of the waves turn into broken wings. It’s totally beautiful and devastating at the same time, and has this real poetic element to it. It speaks to something so deep and beyond the visceral aspect of tragedy that Picasso was representing. And I also totally take into account that it’s Guernica, one of the most extraordinary paintings, but for me—which is in general my issue with a lot of Picasso—I love his Blue Period and Rose period—there isn’t the same kind of depth of poetic sensibility that an artist like Goya or Manet had. Even if you look at Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian of 1867–69 and are thinking about color, if you look at the dark black trousers that the soldiers are wearing, the darkest part is luminous green. How do you get to that!? It’s like this beautiful emerald jewel. That feels like it’s a real evolution of painting and a real kind of sensitivity to what is happening as a painting.

Bui: Michael, it’s so good. We need to have another talk, because this can go on for hours.

Armitage: Yeah, sorry [laughs]!

Bui: Stay on that thought!

Armitage: Thanks so much Phong.

Jason Stopa: Hi Michael, thank you for such a wonderful talk. I’m going to piggyback off of Phong’s question a little bit. I was also thinking of a number of contemporary painters who I’ve felt like your work is in line with, Peter Doig being one of them. But I felt that Chris Ofili’s paintings—some of the more lyrical ones—Noah Davis, Kara Anderson, where there’s a dreamlike space that borders on abstraction at times. It struck me that that work makes me—like your own—look first to comprehend, and then, also, I’m appreciating the paint handling and the paint qualities. Maybe you could elaborate on that balance of the back and forth between forcing the viewer to comprehend the image and understand what it is that they’re even looking at and then going back to the aesthetics.

Armitage: I think one of the most extraordinary experiences that I’ve had recently with a living painter’s work was seeing Chris Ofili’s black and blue paintings. Going into this darkened room with all of these paintings that you could barely see, you became so aware of the fact that what you were doing was looking. I know it sounds extraordinarily simple but that really is the essence.

Stopa: Yes, I recall that room. Those almost Roman-like paintings in that room—they were very sparse.

Armitage: Yeah. And sometimes they went from having very beautiful, lyrical narratives to then having lynchings and really different startling subjects. This idea of looking at night—how much that made you use your eyes—was sensational in a way that I haven’t really seen explored by that many painters. It was such a simple technique, really, and it’s the sort of thing that for generations “deceiving the eye” was really what representational painting tried to do. Obviously a lot changed in the last couple hundred years but nevertheless, to see somebody try and take that on and to do it so well…That room sent chills down my spine, and I just wish it was a room that I could walk into whenever I’d like. I feel like I’ve gone way too deep into that room and forgotten your question [Laughter].

Stopa: It’s okay. I think you kind of answered it in a roundabout way. This difference between perception and space. Thank you.

Armitage: Thanks for the question. Cheers.

McKeever: Next we have a question from Terry Myers.

Terry Myers: Michael you know I had to get in here [laughter]. Michael was a postgrad student at RA when I was doing a bit of teaching there, and he doesn’t necessarily know this, but your group and that moment are very important. It’s a key moment, and it’s become even more of a key moment. I’m going to ask you to respond to something. At your degree show, you could have walked in and been like, “Yeah, this kid’s looking at Michael Krebber and Sigmar Polke.” Your colleague from the year after you, Oliver Osborne, a few years ago asked me to write a text and I found this interview he did for this Italian website. At one point he just says—and I can imagine the way he must have said it—“Oh you know, the recent history of painting from Ingres to Michael Krebber, perhaps.”

Armitage: [Laughs]

Meyers: It just blew me away. And I just thought, well you guys are the generation that could get away with saying that the recent history of painting went from Ingres to Michael Krebber. So even just a few years ago, students I had even at the RA would never have said such a thing. I think there’s something about your generation and its distance from not only modernism but also postmodernism that is at play there. And that’s what I wrote about in this text about Oliver. Maybe many people don’t know your work from when you were a student there…

Armitage: That’s a good thing [laughs].

Meyers: Well the shift is provocative to me—you had to do what you did there the same way Oliver and a bunch of you had to do the same thing. There’s something about being born in the mid-’80s that I’m convinced has you guys in a different place of relation to this notion of painting, where you could even say something like, “the recent history of painting starts with Ingres.” So I’m just wondering about your thoughts and reactions to that. You knew Oliver, but it felt like something that you could have said too—not ending with Michael Krebber of course [laughs].

Armitage: I think also it feels like something quite particular to the English education system in the scene, where maybe at that point we were. You had the ’90s which were all the YBAs [Young British Artists]. That was so loud. Some amazing things were being made. You had this much more clinical, conceptual approach. I think that there was something from…Let me speak from myself; maybe that’ll be easier.

Meyers: That’s what I want to hear.

Armitage: I felt very distrustful of anything that was placed as a way of making that was true. Anything. I felt that everything, whether it was somebody talking about Abstract Expressionism or someone talking about London School painters like Freud—and then, there was this kind of position at the time where irony was the thing, you know? It was so, so heavy in every single crit. But it was this quite clumsy irony. And I think that the effect of Kippenberger cannot be diminished on my generation. Particularly because the things that he did so well are so crude and on such an epic level that it’s very difficult to replicate that without just making terrible work. At the end of the day, you’re not Kippenberger. There was only one like that. It’s also something that feels very accessible—and it’s easy to be cynical and make work that’s cynical‚ but it’s difficult to use cynicism to express something generously. In a way, perhaps that’s what someone like Kippenberger was interested in because you felt that every part of him was there, however cynical he was about an idea. You felt like you were seeing this other part of him. You were always faced with Kippenberger, but the part of his work that is cynical and the part that is talked about as concept—that’s very muddy waters to step into and make work in the shadow of. So I kind of feel like we were between, we were a generation that was being educated after a bomb had gone off conceptually, and we had this quite open space to work into, however much people wanted to say “This is how you should do something or this isn’t.” For me, and I felt that with other artists I spoke to, especially with international artists I studied with, there was a real distrust of any dogma that would appear in artmaking. For that I’m super grateful.

Meyers: Right, you’re proving this theory that I haven’t really written yet. There’s something about being born around ’85, ’86, all of you. I’ve said this many times before to students that I’m still the generation that I’m an abused child of modernism [laughter] because of my teachers. And you guys were the first generation in which it was possible for you to not have that in you at all. You knew modernism, you knew postmodernism—but you didn’t really have it in your DNA, and I think there’s a difference. The inclusiveness of Oliver saying that. This idea of Ingres could be recent, why not? I would’ve been murdered in art school if I would’ve said that to a professor [laughter]. I would’ve been kicked out of the room! So there’s something about distance. Your answer is revealing. All of you born in ’85 or ’86 or in that range, you’re interesting to me, so watch this space.

Armitage: [Laughs] Yeah I would say again, from my perspective, having not grown up around art and a Western art history and then being introduced to art and looking at and being affected by Kenyan and East African artists—I mean those were the guys that made me fall in love with the whole idea of being an artist—for me as also been really, really important in illustrating the fallibility of taste. This is completely off-piste actually because now I’m beginning to think of something totally different. I had this reaction to Titian the first time I saw The Death of Actaeon (1559–76). I just thought it was terrible. Everyone was saying this was the most beautiful thing ever made, but all these hideous things were going on in the painting and that’s because what I was used to looking at and what I wanted from the painting was based on what I saw growing up. I saw the same reaction in a tutorial when the Africa Remix [Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent]show was on at the Hayward in London, where the tutor said, “Perhaps the thing about it that’s good is that it’s so bad.” And I was like, “I think that stuff is pretty good, I think this is great.” Sometimes it just takes a while to acclimatize to a different visual language and often an impatience can settle in and a cultivated taste prevents one from taking seriously what one sees as distasteful or ‘bad’.

McKeever: Thank you Michael. Thank you, Terry for that question. Before we move on, I really want to give a big thank you to Toby and to Michael for this wonderful talk and really enlightening, fantastic conversation. And thank you to all the questions that were asked and apologies to the questions we didn’t get to.

Contributor

Toby Kamps

TOBY KAMPS is former director of Blaffer Museum of Art, and curator of modern and contemporary art at the Menil Collection. He is now the director of external projects at White Cube Gallery and is an Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail.

close

The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues