THE first section of Michael Armitage’s three-pronged exhibition depicts the contested Kenyan election of 2017, exploring how politicians use the language of religion, especially the idea of the promised land, to win over supporters.
For me, the most immediately biblical of these canvases is The Fourth Estate, 2017, inspired by Armitage’s witnessing political supporters sitting in a tree, dressed in clown wigs and outlandish outfits, carrying signs and banners.
Omitted from the canvas, but part or the real-life scene, one of the supporters had an image of Leonardo’s The Last Supper, with the opposition leader’s face replacing the head of Christ. The painting instantly brought to mind Zacchaeus hiding in a tree to listen to Jesus, and is inspired in composition and in tone by Goya’s etching Disparate Ridiculo (Ridiculous Folly, c.1820)
The curator, Anna Ferrari, highlights the use in Pathos and the Twilight of the Idle (2019) of Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin as a compositional device, with carved figures in an arch at the top of the canvas providing a church-like architectural frame. The central figure, a male, bikini-clad protester, seems to be rising into the skies. In his waistband are bottles to lob into the crowd to provoke a reaction.
© Courtesy of the Artist. Photo Maximilian GeuterAsaph Ng’ethe Macua, When the Men Took Power From Women, n.d., gouache on paper, 41.1 x 44.2cm.
Armitage (b. 1984) wanted to document the part played by paid protesters in the election, dressed to draw media attention, and pose the question whether, if they were shot at a rally because of the unrest they caused, what sort of martyr they would be. What is the worth of paid martyrdom?
Armitage works on lubugo bark cloth, a painstakingly produced ceremonial fabric used for East African religious rites, especially funerals. Lubugo’s texture, complete with nubs, holes, and visibly repaired tears, both adds another layer to Armitage’s many layered scenes and puts East African tradition at the heart of viewing his work. In the second section of the show, Armitage examines the trope of politicians’ promising to lead people to paradise or the promised land.
The Paradise Edict, the exhibition’s titular painting, has a landscape drawn from the island of Kiwayu, off the north-east coast of Kenya, near the border with Somalia. Just beyond this tourist paradise, there is often conflict between Kenyan forces and Al-Shabab. Armitage wants to question why tropical landscapes stand for paradise, and insert a more complex, layered sense of history, with a longer timeframe.
Despite their similarities to Gauguin, Armitage’s landscapes are not simply beautiful places, but contain a sense of menace and violence, symbolised by the serpent who is draped down the centre of the plane. A translucent Adam and Eve stare out bewildered, while underneath them a torso has its arms on fire.
© Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis) Michael Armitage, Pathos and the Twilight of the Idle, 2019, oil on Lubugo bark cloth, 330 x 170cm. Courtesy of the Artist and White Cube
In Leopard Skin Seducer, an anthropomorphic, standing-upright monkey in a leopardskin bikini top looks contemptuously to the right, avoiding the viewer’s gaze. The figure’s legs dissolve into the abundant foliage, inviting the question where the highly stylised but still-recognisable figure ends and the fantasy landscape that it is associated with it begins.
In Baboon, the primate lies back, adorned by a huge bunch of bananas, creating a parallel with reclining male nudes in European art. Using animals to stand for politicians is a longstanding East African tradition, as a way of voicing dissent.
The third room, Mwili, Akili na Roho (Body, Mind and Spirit) showcases six contemporary East African artists whose development of figurative painting influenced Armitage. In Meek Gichugo’s No Erotic They Say (1991), a woman embraces a zebra, which Armitage described as a revelation, and a shock to the imagination, jarring against his strict Christian upbringing.
Christianity’s influence on East African art can further be seen in Sane Wadu’s Abraham and Isaac, Asaph Ng’ethe Macua’s The Garden of Eden Genesis, Chapter 2, Verse 17, hung next to his round-format painting of the Kikuyu creation story When the Men Took Power From the Women, whose stylised and spaced-out figures resemble ancient Greek pottery.
Theresa Musoke’s Midday Buffalo at Miweye (1967), a sparing, fauvist outline of horns, flanks, and muzzles, hangs next to an arch connecting The Paradise Edict’s super-lush landscape and forming a vista between the two.
“Michael Armitage: Paradise Edict” is in the Sackler Wing, Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 19 September. Phone 020 7300 8000. Advance booking required: www.royalacademy.org.uk