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January 18, 2019

How to look at art: Producing culture

Baikoko at the mouth of the Mwachema River, 2016 ©Michael Armitage. Photo ©White Cube (Ben Westoby)
Baikoko at the mouth of the Mwachema River, 2016 ©Michael Armitage. Photo ©White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Kenyan artist Michael Armitage is one of the leading young contemporary African artists working today. Born in Nairobi in 1984, Armitage studied in London at the Slade School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools. He now lives between Nairobi and London and is represented by a major UK art gallery, the White Cube. 

I met Michael recently, when he came to do a creativity workshop with me at a school in Kenya.

“I paint about life in Kenya, what defines us Kenyans. Exploring cultural and political attitudes, I wish to engage with people. It is important to me,” says Michael. 

“Each painting is a reflection on an social issue. Art creates a space for me to do so, a safe space to ‘provoke’.”

He adds that: “My figurative painting style is another way to relate to people. I rely on a narrative (a story) and enhance it by colour and materials.”

For Michael, materials have particular gravity: “It is important for me to reflect on my culture though traditional materials.” 



He paints on traditional Ugandan Lubugo bark cloth, a coarse material that he sizes with many layers of glue and then gessoes it. Lubugo was traditionally used as a burial garment, but with time it lost its traditional significance and became the material for baskets and placemats and other trivial touristy souvenirs. Painting on it, “I hope to give it back its traditional significance,” says Armitage.

He thins his oil paint with oil of spike lavender, which gives them a ‘chalky’ effect when they dry, and applies paints thinly, scraping them where necessary to reveal the Lubugo texture. This unique painting process, which took Michael years to develop, adds to his distinctive painting style. 



The Club students asked Michael, ‘Why did you become an artist?’ 

“I wanted to be an artist from the early age. Reasons why I make art have not changed since then. I like the process. It is solitary: you have to sit and consider things. I like people responding to my paintings: I like them taking me seriously. I like images that tell a story. I love the ‘communication’ aspect of it. And, I love the fact that art allows me a safe space to question the authority, rules, culture, identity. Nothing else than art-making makes you feel that you are actually producing culture.”  

‘What motivates you to be creative?’ students asked. 

“A space to push boundaries, to imagine different situations. A painting takes a long time to produce. From an idea to beginning painting, it takes at least two years. I need to decide how to tell a story, what image would tell the story. This is a long process. And then painting the picture takes a long time, too. There are a lot of challenges. But challenges is what I enjoy.”

“Making a living out of painting is not easy money,” he continues, “It took me 15 years before I began making a living out of my art. To find motivation, therefore, I need to paint what interests me. But for you,” Michael addressed the students, “Art is a way of thinking. Learn it and then apply it across life.”

Michael Armitage’s art, together with the artworks by the MASK Prize creativity competition participants, will be exhibited at the Turner Contemporary in Margate, UK, from May to September.  

Enter the MASK Prize now, free, online, on before April 1 to win prizes and exhibit with Michael.


Alla Tkachuk is a creativity and innovation consultant and training specialist, Twitter: @MASKcharity.

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