So much of Western art and culture depicts Africa as a vast, dark, incomprehensible continent, somewhere over there, a literal ‘other’. It’s the heart of darkness, right? But in London-based, Kenyan-born painter Michael Armitage’s show here, East Africa isn’t the ‘other’, it’s just another: not something exotic or far away, but something very, very familiar.
Your thoughts here might drift towards Paul Gauguin and Peter Doig, or Edgar Degas and Antoine Watteau, and you’d be right. Armitage uses those influences to submerge contemporary Africa in the same thought stream as Western art history: not two separate things, but one linked whole.
Painted directly on to bark cloth, his figures and colours curve and sway into the material’s holes and bumps. His images are ghostly, spectre-like apparitions that feel moments away from disappearing into a formless fog. One painting shows a woman giving birth to a donkey, another shows a man being flayed alive. Four figures stand around a nude man with a snake wrapped round his leg in one work; women are exorcised en masse in a field in another. The scenes are drenched in hallucinatory imagery, covered in metaphors, but each is based in some kind of reality: rumours and news on social media or witnessed in real life.
And Armitage’s work avoids some classic pitfalls. It doesn’t demonise or denigrate, and it doesn’t mythologise or place its characters on pedestals. He’s not humanising anything here, because it doesn’t need humanising. He’s just treating it like he’d treat any subject, like any artist should treat any subject.
That’s why it works so well. As surreal as the brutality and injustices shown here are, they’re mined from real life or social media; they’re not foreign or seen through a telescope, but domestic, contemporary, apparent, in your face. And, most of all, the majority of the work is gorgeous. Big washes of colour, endless intertwined details: ghostly, aggressive, subtle, colourful, dark. Two paintings end up a little formless, but the rest drench the stories of East Africa in swells of art history and waves of brutality; waves that can crash on any shore.