The Exorcism of the Strange Fruit:
Michael Armitage at Kunsthaus Bregenz
How do you respond to the colonial gaze? The exhibition Pathos and the Twilight of the Idle at Kunsthaus Bregenz – British-Kenyan painter Michael Armitage’s first comprehensive presentation of works in Austria, seeks to offer a possible answer.
In addition to plant and animal motifs, the large-scale paintings are marked by historical and current political events. Local rituals and political demonstrations are depicted in intensely colourful and moving somnambulistic landscapes. Velvety on the surface and awash with formal beauty, the pictures possess an unsettling ambiguity.
As a painting ground, Armitage uses bark cloth. To make it, the outer layer of bark from the Ugandan ficus tree is peeled off, lightly burned, and beaten smooth. In a complex process, the hard organic material is transformed into a supple, tensile cloth referred to as “Lubugo.” Armitage stitches pieces of the cloth together into substantial sizes. The seams remain visible underneath the paint layer as holes and irregularities also become part of the image.
Armitage’s paintings take vitality from complementary colours applied in several layers, scraped off, and reworked anew. Breaking away from established ways of seeing, events and imaginings are woven together into rich narratives where people are depicted close to the picture’s edge or from below. The inversion of perspective implying a reversal in the balance of power.
The painter is often inspired by pictures and videos he encounters on social media where people are frequently publicly condemned. One such example is Conjestina, 2017, depicting Kenyan boxer Conjestina Achieng who following a career as a boxing champion suffered collective defamation over a suspicion of embodying malicious spirits. Armitage paints the boxer naked and exposed to remind us of her vulnerability.
Words by Fabrizio Mifsud Soler.
Photos Markus Tretter. Courtesy of the artist, Christen Sveaas Art Collection, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Collection SFMOMA, Collection of Yuz Foundation, Private Collection and White Cube © Michael Armitage, Kunsthaus Bregenz
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