Michael Armitage’s dream-like figurative paintings spring from his birthplace of Kenya. Using his own childhood memories alongside first-hand sketches and research, Armitage combines these elements with motifs from Western art history, contemporary popular culture and news media events. Armitage first assembles ideas in a studio in Nairobi, and then develops them into large-scale canvases back in his London studio. Particular narratives intuitively come to the fore on the surface of a painting as he works on several pieces simultaneously.
Layering washes of colour, Armitage constructs scenes that disarm in their beauty and then jolt with moments of violence or strangeness. The natural landscape and green tones in Followers (2016) contrasts sharply with the large neon-pink rabbit carried by a man being watched by a crowd, giving rise to a surreal, dream-like sensation. A cutaway section in the top right of the canvas depicts the outline of another man being watched by police.
Armitage reflects on Kenya’s more troubling aspects, be it political corruption, inequality or oppression. But he is also at pains to make evident the disjuncture in his own processes, and the complex questions raised in the overt blending of sources from the European tradition with East African life. A significant aspect of the work in this regard is its materiality. Armitage paints on Lugubo, a rough cloth made in a traditional method, cut from the bark of a living tree. Used in the religious traditions and ceremonies of the Buganda tribe, the artist first came across the material when he picked up a place mat in a tourist shop in Nairobi. For Armitage the surface itself, with its texture and points of resistance, directs the evolution of each on his compositions and helps there determine their feeling of intriguing instability.