Luscious hues and pulsating landscapes enticed the senses in British-Kenyan painter Michael Armitage’s solo exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate, on England’s southeastern coast. The show’s title, “Peace Coma,” is a phrase used by international press in Kenya to describe the conciliatory reporting that local media did to avoid fanning tensions after the country’s violent 2007 elections. The phrase captures the dichotomy found in Armitage’s work, which often treats dark subjects in a visually seductive manner.
Armitage, who was born in Nairobi in 1984 and trained at the Slade School of Art in London, paints on lubugo—a coarse Ugandan bark cloth whose kinks, irregularities, and holes accentuate the lively movement and texture of his compositions. Reflecting his dual heritage, his lyrical paintings fuse childhood memories, collective experiences, and cultural traditions of East Africa with references to works by Western canonical painters. Composed of five male nudes, Nyali Beach Boys (2016) riffs on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—in which two of the prostitutes are rendered with features resembling those of African masks—but focuses on young Kenyan men who sell sex to European tourists. Similarly, the vibrant, dreamlike paintings Nasema Nawe and Baikoko at the Mouth of the Mwachema River (both 2016) recall Gauguin’s scenes of Tahitian women in Edenic landscapes. Both of Armitage’s paintings depict women performing a highly sexual dance from Tanzania called baikoko, with the natural settings appearing to writhe around their crouching forms.
Armitage critiques not only exoticist tropes of Western artists but also social mores and beliefs prevalent within Africa. In the disturbing painting #mydressmychoice (2015), an African female nude reclines in the pose of the figure in Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus before a line of male onlookers. Her curvaceous body stretches across a Technicolor ground whose visual allure belies the menacing quality of the work, the departure point of which was a sexual attack on a woman deemed provocatively dressed by a group of men at a Nairobi bus station. Kampala Suburb (2014) portrays two men kissing in an interior setting, their tender pose, derived from an Egyptian hieroglyph, contrasting sharply with a wall frieze depicted above them that shows scenes of an execution in Somalia—a stark reminder of the persecution faced by homosexuals across the region.
Another sinister twist is found in a 2016 painting that draws the eye slowly upward from the base of a curving tree trunk, through an explosion of orange foliage against a cornflower blue sky and to a pair of hanging feet. Titled Strange Fruit, after Billie Holiday’s 1939 song about lynching in the American South, the painting is based on a news story about the killing of a woman accused of witchcraft by her relatives.
As “Peace Coma” made clear, Armitage has found a remarkably distinctive voice. Drawing on sources ranging from news stories to popular culture to local folklore, he combines the real and the imaginary, the historical and the contemporary, creating paintings that aim to challenge established views of Africa—both those held by its outside observers and those held by its inhabitants.