Come and Goya: What happens when art traditions collide

Lifestyle

Come and Goya: What happens when art traditions collide

Western figurative painting is an accomplice to East African modernism in Michael Armitage’s work

Gary Cotterell

Much like a writer discovers the possibilities – the scope – of language by consuming great literary works, it is difficult for an artist not to look at great painters in pursuit of making the best possible paintings they can, explains acclaimed Kenyan artist Michael Armitage. This was in response to a question I asked the millennial painter on his technique and the artistic references in his work after my introduction to Accomplice: Michael Armitage, a series of eight oil paintings and preparatory ink drawings created in response to the 2017 Kenyan election rallies, exhibited at the Norval Foundation.

Armitage’s practice, while rooted in East African modernism, acknowledges European masters of the 17th to 19th centuries through his style of painting in layers, which he scrapes and repaints, dexterously interlacing his references through a type of painterly Fanagalo, like a hip-hop artist’s interpolations across genres and eras. And as the viewer traverses these seemingly exotic, dream-like landscapes, canvases filled with colourful caricatures, there is a sense that something more sinister is at play, exposing the harsh realities of Kenya and the world in general.

“In many ways, the references are consequential of the stuff that I’ve seen and grown up with,” says Armitage. “Art history wasn’t an option when I was growing up [in Nairobi]. The shows I saw, the way of thinking I was exposed to then, the characters and the artists’ work, were all East African and Kenyan.”..

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