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Contemporary times and exoticising fantasies have brought the Western community in closer contact with Eastern and African customs and traditions. The distance that has always divided the world, is being diminished by artists like Michael Armitage, who feel the need to communicate their symbols and their folclore to the rest of the globe. A journey in Africa’s social dismay through the romantic and expressive eyes of a painter.

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Born in Nairobi, London based artist Michael Armitage is one of the finest living painters, with an imagery that aims to create a sense of awareness of the social injustice started in colonial times and still present in the slums of East Africa. The stories that Armitage wants to communicate, find their setting in the urban and rural landscape that is typical of these countries, places where lush vegetation and wildlife create a stage for the artist’s whispery denunciation of Kenya’s crude reality. Welfare disparities, social inequalities and violence create a void in which the painter finds a number of everyday aspects towards which he directs his attention, giving birth to a phantasmagorical vision of the society, its iconography, and those naturalistic elements that define the African culture.


Michael Armitage, The Promised Land, 2019. Oil on Lubugo


Michael Armitage, Exorcism, 2017. Oil on Lubugo


“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”. A statement that explains at best the way that Michael Armitage approaches his artistic research, using a medium that allows him to tell a story through symbolism, to unveil and narrate the problems that can be found in the cracks of Eastern African contemporary society. The material that Michael Armitage is most keen to paint on is called Lubugo, a rough and raw cloth that was originally used in Uganda for burial purposes. This specific choice enhances evern further the cultural provenance of his paintings, which present to viewer a vivid, technical and contemporary image, that cohabits perfectly with the imperfections and the uneven surface disposed by this particular fabric; in an attempt to simoultaneously locate and destabilise the subjects that are being portrayed.



From left to right: Michael Armitage, The Chicken Thief, 2019. Oil on Lubugo; Michael Armitage, The Dumb Oracle, 2019. Oil on Lubugo.

The result is a symbolic and mythological aesthetic, which is obtained through the clever balancing of flattened perspetives and both figurative and abstractive elements, creating a romantic and timeless narrative. The holes that the rough cloth presents, create moments of disruption in which techincal excellence and beauty are interrupted by the imperfections of the surface, a visual discordance that enrichens the expressive potential of the representation. This atypical choice fills Armitage’s paintings with social and political meaning, expressed not only by the stories and settings that are displayed, but also by the decision to represent them on a specific material that has mutated its intended use from burial and spiritual purpose to commercial and touristic merchandry. In a world that is losing contact with its ancestral and authentic provenance, Michael Armitage uses painterly beauty, to communicate both naturalistic fascination and cultural injustice, putting before us an incredibly elegant and pristine representation of the so called black habits and the relations that still exist between Eastern African culture and Western dominance. 

Cover image: Michael Armitage, The Accomplice, 2019. Oil on Lubugo.

Written by Mario Rodolfo Silva

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