Painter Michael Armitage interview: ‘how can you say the arts don’t deserve support?’

·8-min read
 (Michael Armitage/White Cube)
(Michael Armitage/White Cube)

Most of the people currently trying to book tickets on the Royal Academy’s website will be aiming to get into the blockbuster David Hockney show. Some of those people might be slightly disappointed to find that there are no paintings in it (it’s all prints of his iPad pictures). Don’t despair though - upstairs there’s a treat in store.

Paradise Edict is a show of glorious paintings by the British-Kenyan artist Michael Armitage - large-scale canvases (though they’re not on canvas, but on Lubugo bark cloth, a culturally important material made by the Ugandan Baganda people, which Armitage discovered in a market being sold to tourists as placemats) that reference contemporary events such as civil unrest, political power structures, myths, history and European painting traditions to create colourful, dreamlike narrative scenes that draw you in and get under your skin.

In addition, Armitage has curated a room of work by six other East African artists (Meek Gichugu, Jak Katarikawe, Theresa Musoke, Asaph Ng’ethe Macua, Elimo Njau and Sane Wadu) in what is almost certainly a first for the RA. It includes the work by Gichugu, No Erotic Them Say (c. 1992) that, when he saw it at the house of a friend whose mother was an artist (Chelenge van Rampelberg - some of her sculptures are also on display) first smacked Armitage between the eyes and made him realise the power of art.

Michael Armitage with one of his works (Anna Kucera)
Michael Armitage with one of his works (Anna Kucera)

“I found it really repulsive at first,” he tells me as we stand in front of it at the RA as his show is receiving its finishing touches (and it is very, um, direct). “I found it really ugly, and I couldn’t really understand why you’d have that in your living room. And then slowly, slowly, as I came to know it, it just kind of burned into my memory.”

Though Armitage, 37, has lived between London and Nairobi for the last 20 years, and loves London, Kenya has always felt like home to him. He was born there (his mother is Kikuyu, his father a Yorkshireman) and has been to school both there and in the UK (he went to Bryanston, where he says he spent most of his time in the art room).

Since his rather sudden ‘discovery’ by Irene Bradbury of White Cube (“she got sent this book called 100 Painters of Tomorrow which I was in, and she just sent me a message from her personal account, so I had no idea where she worked. I thought maybe somebody had told her [about my work] and she wanted something to match her curtains. And then as soon as we started talking, I thought, shit, I’m out of my depth”) he has been leveraging his rapidly growing profile to give back.

It’s great to hear Armitage talk about his paintings, but it’s even better to hear him talk passionately about the other projects he’s involved with back in Nairobi, one of which is the founding of Kenya’s first ever non-profit contemporary art institution, the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute (NCAI). So no big deal then.

Mkokoteni and Pathos and the twilight of the idle by Michael Armitage at the Royal Academy (PA)
Mkokoteni and Pathos and the twilight of the idle by Michael Armitage at the Royal Academy (PA)

An exhibition space with a strong focus on education, NCAI also has a growing archive aimed at telling the story of the art and artists of East Africa. It was meant to open last year, but for obvious reasons the doors remain closed - he’s cautiously hopeful for later in the year. The institute grew out of an experimental event Armitage organised in Nairobi a couple of years ago, The Gathering, to allow artists to have informal conversations about everything from getting gallery representation to literally finding out that each other exists.

“I was talking to students and I could not believe that none of them knew any artists that showed before 2005, basically. Like nothing. All of these guys that I had grown up with, they didn’t know any of them. And these are full time art students who were doing postgraduates, you know?”

Kenya doesn’t really have a functioning commercial gallery scene, “we don’t have a not-for-profit institute of any sort; our museum doesn’t show contemporary work. So there was no way that these artists could be shown,” he says. He asked attendees at The Gathering what would be useful. “Everyone said, we need a not for profit space, and we need some form of arts education that’s of a different standard to what we have. So I was like, well, let’s try and do that.”

Armitage himself has had rather a good art education, as can be seen in his paintings, which teem with visual references to European art history - is that because he studied here?

A visitor in front of The Paradise Edict (PA)
A visitor in front of The Paradise Edict (PA)

“100 percent,” he says. “If you were in the international schools or British system schools in Kenya, like [the one] I went to, you had art lessons, but there is no art on the [standard] Kenyan syllabus. There’s nothing, so if you’ve studied in a local school, you have no interaction with art or the idea of it. It’s crazy.”

He wants that to change, because he strongly believes in the power of art to change lives. He tells me a story about returning to Nairobi in the summer as a student, and working for a charity teaching a class of about 60-odd kids from the ages of “six to maybe 15”.

“I drew this ridiculous picture of like, something in a tree talking to somebody on the ground. And then I said to these kids, just draw whatever you want. Use your imagination. And every single one of them, except for one kid, got out their rulers and drew a church with a picket fence, and somebody standing in front of the exact same church.”

That one kid though - “he was a street boy, maybe 15 but very small. And he came up to me and said, ‘I don’t know why you’re teaching us lies’. And I was like, ‘well, you know, it’s not a lie. I was thinking about the imagination - have you ever been in a position where you’ve thought about something that maybe doesn’t happen in real life, or you’ve had a dream maybe? And he went and sat down and just stared at me. And then like, five minutes later, I saw him pick up his pencil. He drew this ridiculously beautiful series. There was a tree, but above the tree was the sun and there was somebody burning in the sun. And then there was this bird that was taking the person down in different stages to above the tree and then eventually on the ground. And the birds were really simplified, almost like Matisse or something.”

He was struck, he says, that “the only kid who used his imagination was the kid who had the worst life out of all of them.” The street boys of Nairobi, he explains, have a complex social structure which dictates that “to be able to eat, they have to perform sexual favors on the older boys to get permission. You’re [always] subordinate to one person or another, and there’s violence and abuse like you wouldn’t believe. He told me that he had this recurring dream, where he would see himself burning in the sun, and this bird would pull him out, and then take him down, and then he would end up back on the streets.”

For Armitage the experience was “Fundamental, because [at the time] I was questioning, what is the use of art? What am I doing? And there was just something in seeing how innate it is to make something, and hearing him talk about and being able to express that - a kid like that, you know, who has no outlet for anything - it was very profound.” (That boy eventually attended a boarding school from where he was able to transition to a working life off the streets.)

Armitage finds our own government’s attitude to arts education almost equally distressing. “It’s so short-sighted,” he says, when I mention the recent announcement of a 50 percent cut to arts subjects in higher education. He understands that there are financial pressures, he says, especially coming out of a pandemic, “but this isn’t like the States where philanthropy fills in some very big holes. At the end of the day if the government won’t support the arts - and we’re talking about England, which has been incredible how it’s had such a huge presence within art, all over the world - that you would not support that is beyond me, and I don’t really understand the kind of closed-minded attitude to what is necessary for a society to be healthy and functioning, that says that culture isn’t part of that.

“If you go and see, for example, somewhere like the Turner Contemporary, in Margate, and you see the effect that that’s had on not only Margate, but the whole region, and the effect of culture positively, how can you turn around and say that this is something that doesn’t deserve support?”

For now though, Armitage is using his new-found platform to focus on Kenya - but also on the perennial problem he finds himself facing. “How do you make a good painting? That is always the most difficult bit. That’s the most enjoyable bit, at times, and that’s the worst bit at times, you know. And that very much hasn’t changed.”

Michael Armitage: The Paradise Edict is at the Royal Academy until September 19, royalacademy.org.uk

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