On a brisk cold day in late February I sauntered a couple of miles down to the South London Gallery and back to have a quick look at Michael Armitage's 'The Chapel' show. It was just one large room with eight, fairly large also, paintings in it. The paintings seemed to offer vistas into horrific, bizarre, and uncanny worlds at the same time as they referenced, and were often inspired by, more classical painters of days gone by.
Armitage was born in Kenya and he's based in London but this is his first show in any of London's public galleries. He's made good use of the space and the title of the show, The Chapel, appears to have been influenced by the qualities of the room the show's in. I must say I've always found it a very relaxing place to visit. Even if some of the imagery on display in Armitage's show is anything but relaxing.
In 'hope' a woman has just given birth to a donkey, a baby sits (seemingly unloved and neglected) in the bottom right hand corner, and an airborne washing machine flies into view in the top right. There's a nightmare like quality to the elements that make up the painting which contrasts, and plays off, the dreamlike gauzy finish Armitage applies, which at times reminds me of Chris Ofili's wonderful Weaving Magic (which was on last year at the National Gallery) and, on other occasions, of the work of Paul Gauguin.
Gauguin is one of many names that may come to mind as you peruse the octet of oil paintings (all on lubugo bark cloth rather than canvas). Titian, Degas, and Manet are suggested in the free leaflet but, as well as Chris Ofili, I also saw work that reminded me of Edvard Munch, Andre Derain, El Greco, and even (in the sinewy well defined muscles of Nyayo) Michelangelo.
Nyayo (footsteps) shows a man with a snake wrapped round his ankles surrounded by four other men. The aerial angle it's seen from makes it tricky, at first, to make out these 'extras'. We're informed that the painting refers to the throwing of toothless snakes into political prisoners' cells during the Moi era of Kenyan history in the 90s. Daniel arap Moi was nicknamed Nyayo because he was said to be following in the footsteps of Jomo Kenyatta, the country's first president and a man who is remembered for playing a significant role in achieving independence.
Conjestina, seemingly based on Watteau's Pierrot, shows former Kenyan world middleweight boxing champion Conjestina Achieng standing naked as a pair of baboons blithely fuck away in the background. Achieng is exposed and vulnerable and it seems that this is her punishment for being naïve enough to trust people. I'm not quite sure what the rutting monkeys are there for, to be honest.
The Flaying of Marsyas (2017)
Marsyas, a figure from Greek mythology, fares even worse. A satyr who loses a bet with Apollo and is punished by being flayed. Armitage's more contemporary take on the scene asks uncomfortable questions about progress, the history of lynching, and the mentality when mob rule takes over.
The mythical beasts, and almost abstract imagery, of Lacuna come as quite a relief after this but it's short lived because Exorcism is based on a Tanzanian ritual where women gather to be publically exorcised. The atmosphere looks half-celebratory, half-deadly. It's a hard painting to read and, thus, one worth returning to.
When I visit these exhibitions normally the subject matter and the style of painting, perhaps historical narrative, are the things that are foremost in my mind. Perhaps the type of paint used. Very rarely what the paint has been applied to. But I spoke to my friend Misa about the exhibition and she was very vocal, and very knowledgeable, about the lubugo bark cloth that Armitage has used. She'd studied a similar Polynesian bark cloth for two years and informed me that outside of Europe and North America it's very normal, in fact quite typical, to paint on to these bark cloths.
Armitage's particular cloth is harvested from 'mutuba' trees in Uganda by the Buganda people, Uganda's biggest tribe, and the technique has been passed down from generation to generation giving the whole show something of a pan-East African feel. It certainly adds another dimension to both how the paintings look and, perhaps also, to what they mean. I'm nowhere near knowledgeable enough about bark cloths (lubugo or otherwise) to pass much comment but, all the same, I'm very grateful for Misa's input and for her making me see this exhibition in a new light.
Anthill even has rope strewn through the surface of the painting (as 'hope', intentionally, has a crack across its face). It's another odd image from what I assume to be the fringes of Tanzanian society. Witches taking flight from termite hills on the back of hyenas. Alex's assessment that these paintings are 'frightening' or 'horrible' may be a little reductive (there's more going on than just fear and/or horror) but certainly those two adjectives could be deployed alongside a whole host of others. 'Curious' may be the one I'd go for first.
An interesting afternoon's culture. I look forward to seeing future Armitage work.