Renowned Nigerian photographer Johnson Donatus Aihumekeokhai Ojeikere (J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere) (1930 – 2014) once said: “Art is life. Without art, life would be frozen.” Totally true. Art is a means of expression. Be it painting, drawing, welding, fashion, writing, sculpture and poetry - Oh yes, welding and construction is art too.
Art is the grander merchandise of the human imagination. As well as “the state of our souls”, enthused Kenyan born, London-based artist Michael Armitage. “Art can be an agent of social change. I don’t think anyone should underestimate the impact of art on any society”, he worried. Little did he know he’s agreeing with the master - J. D. Ojeikere. Why is Armitage saying things and why am I in tête-à-tête with him? The reason is that this promising young aspirant has taken up residence at the White Cube - the avant-garde fashionable art gallery in Bermondsey in South East London.
In this his first solo exhibition in the UK, he’s transformed this very enormous White Cube room with eleven giant symbolic paintings that center primarily on stories from his native country, Kenya. Countless concepts for his paintings commence with reports of a newsworthy, contemporary incident, including media news, East African legends, internet chats or thoughts and images stuck in his own personal memory about a momentous event. The ensuing imagery is then developed with oil on ‘Lubugo’, a traditional bark cloth from Uganda, which is beaten over a period of days creating a natural material which when stretched taut has occasional holes and bristly indents. In one of his paintings, Accident (2015), is a snapshot of a bus crash. He returned to a scene of personal pain: an airplane crash he experienced as a teenager, with his father and uncle, deep in the Kenyan bush.
In another painting, Hornbill (2014), Armitage depicts one of the four terrorists who carried out the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Nairobi, in which 67 people were killed including a group of children who were filming a cookery programme in the mall at the time. Michael Armitage was born in Nairobi, Kenya, now a resident of the UK for the last fifteen years, he still works between London and Nairobi. In a conversation with Armitage at the White Cube he said “I can understand if some people find my art controversial, however I am only exposing the daily realities of society’s political problems, male-dominated society, and total disrespect for women’s rights in many parts of the world and extreme disparities in wealth. The gap between the rich and the poor is on the increase both in the Western world and in sub-Saharan Africa”.
Now, for an artist crusader who wants to show the world its ills and atrocities and inequalities via figurative paintings; to exhibit in an avant-garde, posh, experimental and high-profile gallery has raised an eyebrow or two. Why exhibit at the White Cube?
Absolutely I agree with you. Avant-garde and the rest of it. However, it is an opportunity to have my work exposed and to be looked at on a global stage And I would like the subject of the work to be considered as a global thing on the same level as other global messages out there. It is a platform that was granted to me and I took it because it will reach a lot of people and let the debate begin. The narrative of the paintings are mostly about Kenya. It’s about specific things that happened across east Africa – but it can happen anywhere in the world too. The suicide bombings in Nairobi, Kenya can affect us all in the UK or the US. No one thing is now specific to one country. So showing in this gallery will help propel my work to the world stage and that’s what any artists in my position would want. Get world-wide recognition and get the people talking – that is important to me.
Your art work is a tad bit macabre, if I may say so. Violence, suicide-bombings, prostitution and limbs flying about. One hell of a dark and sad world you portray here. From the sensible to the ridiculous. There’s no in-between. These paintings aren't like anything I have seen before. What would you like your viewing public to take away from this?
Sure. Absolutely macabre. But that is life for you in all its entreaty. Make of it what you wish. I did not want to do an uplifting pussy-fussy, tip-toe around works of art for art sake. I know I have very serious issues and messages to deal with. There are lots of dark things going on right now in this world. I portray rape – there’s rape every day. I portray child and adult prostitution – these are happening right now with no sign of abating. No offence to anyone, but I will tell those people who say my work is too dark to look around their communities or far away communities – somewhere, somehow evil is going on. We should not let these things happen. We must talk about it now. I want hard hitting, in your face works-of-art. However, I will also add, they can make of the paintings whatever they wish. If there’s a sort of miss reading at first I would quite like that. If there’s conflict, that is kind of good too.
But do you have to ill-use the current dreadful state of affairs by turning it on its head as art? This is provocative work right here. Would you concur?
Categorically yes. I hope it’s provocative in a sense that it makes the wider audience ask questions about what they are looking at. Question their attitudes. Question why some things are easy and some are not, for as I mentioned earlier in this conversation, art is an agent of social change. I don’t think anyone should underestimate the impact of art on any society. There are a lot of crazy things going on in the world that people are not willing to talk about and have a proper intelligent debate about. As artists and journalists these atrocities should be a lot higher on our agenda than they are now. For me my work is entirely necessary and justified.
Born 1984, Kenya. At that time, in a typical Kenyan family you are encouraged to either be an accountant, a doctor or a lawyer or something they call a real job. How did you become as passionate about art and art as a process for change?
[Laughs] Art has been very present in my life since I was a six year old growing up in Kenya. It’s not a passion I acquired when I located to Britain. I came to Britain to further my education and attend higher education. My mother is Kenyan and my father is English. Both have always said – go for it. Take it as far as you can go. They have been incredibly supportive although neither of them are artists. And I had a school teacher that encouraged and thought me the ropes and discipline to be a good artist.
Is it reasonable to conclude that Michael Armitage is an angry man or just an angry artist who is expressing himself with paintbrushes?
I would not say that I am an angry artist or that my work is angry. In the painting #mydressmychoice the events were horrific - women wearing miniskirts were taken off minibuses stripped and molested by the drivers, touts and some passengers; this was filmed and circulated on the Internet. After watching it I felt complicit in the abuse, it was my culture that was twisted to say that a woman in a mini skirt is morally wrong and that the attackers were using to justify the abuse. I was implicated in the attack through watching and I wanted to question my position, and question this attitude within my culture - in the painting the most important character is you as the viewer. Of course the attack makes me angry, but that is not why I make the paintings.
You have exhibited as part of a group, and now gone solo in a posh gallery and you will be featured in roomsmagazine.com. What more would you like to achieve?
[Laughs hysterically] Thank you very much for this interview. I appreciate that. At this stage I can say there’s a lot to come and a lot to come afterwards. So it’s hard for me to be specific about something right now. There’s a lot of stuff that we have to deal with. There’s a lot of violence that we have to deal with. So watch this space...
What is an activity or activities that you do regularly in your leisure time for pleasure or just to wind away downtime – that does not include a paint brush?
I play squash. I listen to music by artists like Cyndi Lauper, Franco and TPOK Jazz, Tallis, Toumani Diabate, Cluster, Beyoncé, Sauti Sole...etc
White Cube Bermondsey, 144–152 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3TQ
Theaster Gates: Freedom of Assembly
Michael Armitage: Inside the White Cube
28 April – 15 July 2015