In this interview with Michael Armitage, the British-Kenyan painter, ARTUNER founder Eugenio Re Rebaudengo discusses the artist’s multifaceted and unique approach to painting. Since being featured in ARTUNER’s exhibition at Palazzo Capris in Turin, Armitage’s work has been included into the White Cube group show curated by Barry Schwabsky, Tightrope Walk: Painted Images after Abstraction, and also in the group exhibition I Am Because of You at the Yuan Museum, Beijing. Upcoming projects include a solo show at BAMPFA (Berkeley, California) and a group exhibition at HOME Manchester, Imitation of Life: Melodrama and Race in the 21st Century.
Eugenio Re Rebaudengo (ERR): I’m always amazed by the background stories that are behind each of your paintings and the pivotal role they play. To list but a few inspirations: some of them are based on personal experience, some based on myth and some on photographs or other found objects. At times it’s even a combination of all these factors. When it comes to storytelling in your work what peaks your interest?
Michael Armitage (MA): I am most interested in stories that have an ambiguous moral position.
ERR: This is interesting. What do you think the responsibility of the artist is towards historical memory and as a witness?
MA: An artist has no obligation or responsibility to deal with or to make an account of an event. There is a poetic side of art that you cannot trust as a historical document, but it is the poetic side that can be moving and that can also provide a subtle, less political way of questioning a situation.
ERR: Tell us more about your creative process… how much is inspired by direct experience and how much from images you get from other sources?
MA: The process of painting is largely intuitive, but guided by a few breakable rules that come from thinking about the individual painting’s concept, formal elements and the ideas that are the base of my practice. In terms of research for the idea behind each work I generally use anything that will allow me to explore what I am thinking about.
ERR: Could you describe the importance of East African subjects in your work?
MA: East Africa is where I was born, it is where I grew up, it is where my attitudes to life were shaped, it is where the majority of my family are from and live. I have a studio in Nairobi where I spend some of the year.
ERR: You have just left to Kenya for some months… are the paintings you create there different to the ones you make in London?
MA: The paintings are very similar, what changes is my day to day exposure to life in Nairobi. This informs the subjects of my paintings and being in Kenya for an extended period of time allows me to get more intimately involved with attitudes and events within Kenya.
ERR: In your paintings there is definitely a component that is quite ‘socio political’ – is it something you are interested in expanding?
MA: Socio political elements are a part of prejudice, control, power and people interacting with each other. To ignore this aspect of culture in my work would be like trying to ignore the impact of death and sex on life.
ERR: Who are some contemporary artists that you closely relate with and how have they impacted your work? And you are very interested in the history of art… who are your favourite artists from previous generations? From Goya to Picabia, who are your idols?
MA: The artists that I look at are always changing, and most of the time it is not a question of influence but of utility. Goya has a pretty much unrivalled sense of humour in his work. Manet messed with perspective so that there is always something jarring and unsettled about the paintings. He always reminds you that the paintings are constructed, both as compositions but also socially in that there is a way that we look at things that is prejudiced.
ERR: One of the many things about your work that amazes me is the material on which it’s painted. Tell us a bit about the lubugo bark cloth, how is it produced and what sparked your interest in it?
MA: I found the cloth in a tourist stall in Nairobi being sold as an ethnic place mat – if you bought it, you could eat off a material that had this tribal connection and remind yourself of your time spent in Kenya. When I looked into the making of the cloth, it turned out that it was not a Kenyan material at all, it was made by the Buganda, the largest tribe in Uganda. The cloth is made by stripping the bark off a Lubugo tree, the bark is then lightly burnt, cleaned and soaked in water, beaten over several hours(this flattens the bark into a cloth), then it’s spread out to dry .The cloth is traditionally used as a burial shroud or worn during Buganda tribal ceremonies. This commodification of a culturally significant object for the tourist market and the subsequent loss of meaning is a very familiar occurrence throughout East Africa. When I started to paint on the cloth, the surface, heavily textured with divots, holes, stitching and the grain of the bark, would disrupt the way that the paint came off the brush, it was almost anti-painting. I had to rethink my technique so that I could manipulate the tension created by the resistance of the surface to the painted mark. This led me to paint with thin layers: slowly building up the painted layers, rubbing it back to make the surface part of the marks that describe the space within the painting. I liked how the cloth would simultaneously locate and subvert the paintings.
ERR: The question sparked by Édouard Glissant’s last writings, on whether artworks should reveal their cultural origins, I feel is very relevant to your work as well. Glissant felt transparency was problematic, as the audience generally favours Western narratives, and opacity was to be preferred. What are your thoughts on the discourse on opacity, or transparency?
MA: Transparency is vital as it takes the artwork further away from cliché and closer to a more complex reality, life.
ERR: In the 1980s there was quite a debate around whether painting as a medium was dead, and there still are critics arguing for this (see the diffidence towards last winter’s MoMA show Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World). In your opinion, what does painting as a medium allow for that other means of expression preclude?
MA: I think the main difference with painting and other mediums is painting’s history and the material.
ERR: What’s your relationship to writing – do you write? If you do, where does writing stand in comparison to painting?
MA: I don’t write regularly but I do like reading.
ERR: Given that ARTUNER has a strong online component, how does the internet work as an influence?
MA: I use the internet as a research tool. Social media is useful as you have access to a huge number of events and opinions.
ERR: What are your thoughts on the archive? Do you have a personal archive? Do you store visual material?
MA: I store most images that interest me in a digital archive.