• Armitage's pictures brilliantly explore the complex Kenyan identity
• The land is indeed a paradise but there is violence all around us
A solo exhibition by Kenyan artist Michael Armitage at the venerable Royal Academy on Picadilly in London will run until September 19. This is a rare honour for so young an artist.
Armitage was born in 1984 to a Kikuyu mother and to John Stuart Armitage, who has been helping the Kenyatta family to run their businesses for many years.
Armitage’s exhibition is entitled Paradise Edict and is divided into two rooms — one with anarchic pictures derived from the 2017 election and one with beautiful Kenyan landscapes superimposed with strange images. All his paintings are made on barkcloth, produced by the Baganda from fig trees.
Armitage’s pictures are wonderfully creative and show great painterly skill. He is an excellent draughtsman and uses a vivid colour palette. He studied at the Slade School in London but has sought inspiration not just in the Western classical art tradition but also from the longstanding vibrant East African art scene.
A third room has pictures from some East African artists who influenced him, such as Sane Wadu, Jak Katarikawe, Meek Gichugu, Theresa Musoke, Asaph Macua and Elimo Jnau. At the entrance, there are sculptures by Wangechi Mutu, Magdalene Odundo and Chelenge von Rampleberg.
Armitage's pictures brilliantly explore the complex Kenyan identity. The land is indeed a paradise but there is violence all around us. In both his urban and rural landscapes, the good, the bad and the ugly jostle together amid lush vegetation.
Animal figures seem human, and humans seem animal. Hyena, leopard, crocodile, frog and baboon hide in the corners of his pictures or take centre stage. Humans become wild. Sometimes his figures are part human, part animal.
Armitage is a young painter coming into his prime. We can expect even greater things from him in the future. Following in the footsteps of Wangeci Mutu, he has put Kenya onto the map of the international art scene.
He has created a vibrant and compelling synthesis of the Western and East African art traditions with his dynamic, colourful and arresting pictures. You should not get sidetracked by how much his paintings can now sell for — one painting was sold last year at Sotheby’s in New York for $1.5 million (Sh165 million). Armitage is the real deal, a painter of great talent who has discovered a deep creative lode inside the Kenyan political and physical landscape.
Armitage recently founded the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute, a non-profit visual arts space to foster contemporary East African art.
If you can escape the Red List and are lucky enough to get to London, this exhibition by a brilliant Kenyan artist is well worth a visit.
Paradise Edict at the Royal Academy
May 22 – September 19, 2021