Michael Armitage The Dumb Oracle, 2019 Oil on Lubugo bark cloth 150 × 100 cm © Michael Armitage Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis)

Accomplice; Michael Armitage’s first exhibition in Africa

Norval Foundation announces Accomplice: Michael Armitage, an exhibition featuring the work of Kenyan artist Michael Armitage, on view from 8 February 2020 to 15 June 2020 in Gallery 1. The exhibition will include eight paintings and a series of preparatory ink drawings that have been created over the past two years following the 2017 Kenyan elections. Through this body of work, Armitage explores representations of the body politic, connecting images of contemporary East Africa to traditions of Western figurative painting. The Accomplice is organised by Owen Martin, Chief Curator and Talia Naicker, Curatorial and Collections Assistant, Norval Foundation.

Michael Armitage, The Chicken Thief, 2019 Oil on Lubugo bark cloth . 200 × 150 cm 
 © The artist. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis) 
Accomplice Michael Armitage at Norval Foundation
Michael Armitage, The Chicken Thief, 2019 Oil on Lubugo bark cloth . 200 × 150 cm
© The artist Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis)

Armitage, who is based between Nairobi, Kenya, where he grew up, and London, UK, where he studied, has recently gained international critical acclaim by major museums, curators, collectors and galleries. Testament to this is an upcoming solo exhibition at Haus de Kunst (Munich, Germany) next year and previous solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (Sydney, Australia), Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo (Turin, Italy), South London Gallery (London, UK), Turner Contemporary (Margate, UK) and Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (San Francisco, USA). He has been included in group exhibitions internationally, including The Elaine Dannheisser Projects Series at The Museum of Modern Art (New York, USA), 2019 Venice Biennale (Venice, Italy), Prospect.4 (New Orleans, USA) and the 2015 Lyon Biennale (Lyon, France). Additionally, Armitage has had numerous commercial exhibitions.

 Michael Armitage, The Accomplice, 2019. Oil on Lubugo bark cloth. 220 × 300 cm 
 © Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis)
Michael Armitage, The Accomplice, 2019. Oil on Lubugo bark cloth. 220 × 300 cm
© Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis)

Instead of canvas or linen, the paintings included in the exhibition at Norval Foundation are completed on Lubugo cloth, which is crafted from the bark of the mutuba tree in southern Uganda. A textile developed by the Baganda people, and designated a piece of oral and intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, Lubugo is created by removing a thin layer of bark from the mutuba tree, which is then beaten with a series of mallets to form a thin, flexible material. Traditionally used as a burial shroud and for ceremonial clothing, and therefore invested with complex cultural meanings, it was adopted by Armitage after he discovered it in a tourist store in Nairobi in 2010.

The fissures and irregularities of the stretched lubugo are incorporated into the composition of his paintings, creating a dialogue between the artist’s practice and the conceptual and historical meanings of the cloth, as well as its particular material qualities.

The works included in Accomplice, grounded in the artist’s observations of political rallies in Nairobi prior to the 2017 Kenyan general elections, also demonstrate Armitage’s extensive art historical knowledge. The compositional structures and thematic concerns of the paintings echo key artworks from both Western and African art histories. This is evident in The Fourth Estate (2017), a centrepiece of the exhibition, in which crowds of political supporters of Kenya’s opposition party congregate on and around a large tree in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. The scene clearly locates the work within an East African context, yet parallels exist between Armitage’s work and Francisco Goya’s Ridiculous Folly (Disparate ridiculo) (circa 1819-1824; published 1864). Similarly, The promise of change (2018), in which political leaders are transformed into mannequins, recalls the disfigured bodies in Goya’s print series, The Disasters of War (Los Desastres de la Guerra) (1810-1820; published 1863).

Other works included in the exhibition are Mkokoteni (2019), Pathos and the twilight of the idle (2019), The Accomplice (2019), The Chicken Thief (2019), The Dumb Oracle (2019), The promise of change (2018) and The promised land (2019).

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated publication, edited by Sandra Dodson and Owen Martin with graphic design by Daniel Rautenbach. The publication will feature two essays.

Accomplice: Michael Armitage
Norval Foundation
Gallery 1
Opening February 8th 2020
February 8th – June 15th 2020
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