First among the reasons for the Museum of Modern Art’s expansionist dreams was the need to punch up its hidebound historical narrative with new locales, characters, and plot twists. And among the better publicized attempts to do just that are the incursions of paintings by Faith Ringgold and Alma Thomas, both African-American women, in rooms devoted to the biggest fish in MoMA’s ocean, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, respectively.
Ringgold’s “American People Series #20: Die” (1967), depicting a bloody interracial melee, offers a trenchant riposte to the exoticism and cultural appropriations of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), while Thomas’s “Fiery Sunset” (1973), a radiant, ultramarine-on-scarlet abstraction reveling in its freedom of brushwork and color, owns the wall adjacent to Matisse’s “The Red Studio” (1911). Matisse painted this work the year before his life-changing trip to Morocco, but its hot pigment and sinuous lines were clearly pointing in a North African direction.
If the canvases of Ringgold and Thomas embody a counter-narrative representing a clean break with Modernism’s colonizing obsessions, the Kenyan-born artist Michael Armitage has adopted, up to a point, the aesthetic heritage of Western art history, answering its theft of African forms and signifiers with a hybrid vision that affirms the porousness of ethnocultural borders and, in effect, co-opts the traditional hierarchies of power.
Armitage is the first artist to be featured in the new west wing’s Projects Room — one of two admission-free, street-level galleries designed, according to MoMA’s news release, to “better connect the Museum to New York City and bring art closer to people on the streets of midtown Manhattan.”
Projects 110: Michael Armitage, organized by The Studio Museum of Harlem’s Director and Chief Curator Thelma Golden, with Associate Curator Legacy Russell, is also among the handful of exhibitions in that series to spotlight a straight-ahead, brush-in-hand painter since it began in 1971.
Born in Nairobi in 1984, Armitage trained in London, first at the Slade School, where he earned a BA in Fine Arts in 2007, and then at the Royal Academy, which granted him a Postgraduate Diploma in 2010. The eight paintings on display are all done in oil on lubugo, a Ugandan fabric made from fig tree bark and traditionally used for burial shrouds, though less solemn, more touristic applications have cropped up in recent years.
A rich, reddish-brown in color, it’s a peculiar choice for a painting support, since it goes wavy across wide swatches while, elsewhere, holes open up and thickly sewn stitches meander across the surface. But its irregularities also present a distinctly organic materiality similar to the ceremonial buffalo hides painted by the Lakota, Shoshone, Blackfeet, and other nations of the Great Plains.
While his deftly drawn subject matter often skates along the edge of explicit violence, Armitage paints with a light touch — his snaking lines and patches of limpid, at times shimmering color dance across the surface, undercutting the density of compositions teeming with overlaid imagery.
The formal and thematic elements of Armitage’s work, as much as his artistic education, align it with the more narrative branches of the School of London, namely the paintings of R. B. Kitaj, with a smidgen of Francis Bacon and David Hockney thrown in (if those two diametrically opposed figures can cohabit a single artist’s imagination). The exhibition’s introductory wall text states that, along with the European avant-garde, Armitage has been influenced by the Kenyan artists Meek Gichugu and Chelenge, and the Ugandan Jak Katarikawe.
The painting in this show that feels the most unencumbered, joyfully so, by the weight of history or current events is “Seraph” (2017), dominated by a pinkish-purple tree trunk encircled by light purple vines, against the variegated greens of the forest. To the right of the tree trunk, hovering amid the vines, are three horizontal bodies rendered in glowing shades of orange and yellow, the seraphim of the title.
The lubugo surface is traversed by four coarse stitches, suggesting a fresco’s cracks, telescoping the painting’s angelic motif a half-millennium back to Giotto, while scarring the idyllic calm of the scene with a hint of the foreboding that penetrates the other works like crude oil seeping into sand.
Armitage’s imagery quickly takes a turn to the horrific in “Necklacing” (2016), a painting of a male nude with a car tire wrapped around his neck, invoking the torture/executions perpetrated by some Black South Africans against informants and collaborators in their midst, despite the African National Congress’s condemnation of the practice.
The victim Armitage paints looks unexpectedly ridiculous, a purple-haired figure both comic and pathetic. Standing in high grass, he stares straight at the viewer, his hands clutching his genitals, a bright red clown-smile smeared across his face. Or are those scarlet strokes the flames licking upward from the gasoline-soaked tire? The pointed ambiguity carries through most of the other paintings in the show.
The keynote work, “The Promised Land” (2019), occupying the first wall to greet us as we enter the gallery, and the adjacent “The promise of change” (2018), are both specifically topical in nature, inspired, according to the former’s wall label, “by political rallies held before the 2017 general elections in Kenya.”
But the label doesn’t mention the extreme bitterness of those elections — marred by ethnic rivalries and charges of fraud that escalated into widespread abuse by security forces, including murder and rape. Kenya’s continuing divisions make the aftermath of the 2016 election in the US look like a pillow fight, and render the titles of the two paintings deeply ironic.
“The Promised Land” is a mad scramble, divided in two like a diptych, and presided over by baboon, seated cross-legged and sexually exposed on an open broadsheet. On the right, a tear gas canister explodes, scattering protesters, while on the left, a fierce wind whips a palm tree against the edge of a more complacent crowd.
The overall impression, even against the backstory of election discord, is perplexing. A man holds a clutch of dead rats. Trumpets raised above the heads of the crowd, as if to sound an alarm, call to mind the seven trumpets of the Apocalypse. Behind the horns, an uncountable number of people are glimpsed beyond a city gate. A sheet of fabric bearing the image of a half-clothed woman is caught by the wind; the words ringing its border read: “THEY CAN’T KILL US ALL.”
In the same way, “The promise of change” is unnerving even without the knowledge of what’s behind its image of a toddler in royal robes, microphone in hand, addressing a barely distinguishable crowd, while three adults bend over him, one of them unfurling a long, bright red tongue, beneath decapitated heads on spikes.
And then there are the toads — a very large one in front, sharing the stage with the toddler, and a kind of frog-devil, floating like an enormous apparition over the crowd, with its left eye and mouth formed by the natural openings of the lubugo support.
This is a painter who’s too intelligent to attempt to affix the flow of history or explain away the unfathomable contradictions of politics. He’s letting the demons run riot. It’s a stance that feels extraordinarily apt right now.
But, as we’ve seen with “Seraph,” Armitage’s moods can shift both downward and up, casting his imagination across an unpredictable emotional landscape. The beautifully painted “Nyali Beach Boys” (2016), a group portrait of five nude young men — “sex workers in Mombasa, Kenya,” according to the wall label, “known to locals as ‘beach boys’ for their combing of beaches in search of affluent female European tourists” — offers a different kind of riposte to “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by “push[ing] back against stigmatizing representations of sex workers as seen through a ‘male gaze’ that stretches across art history.”
If, again to cite the wall label, “Armitage’s linear arrangement of the five male figures intentionally echoes” the positions of the sex workers of “Demoiselles,” his depiction, which emanates an uncanny innocence (the lightly colored hair on a couple of the men look like haloes), departs stylistically as well as interpretively from Picasso’s nightmarish brothel.
The picture’s inner harmony, devoid of disruptions and sharp edges, even subsumes the built-in irregularities of the lubugo cloth, disguising its waves and stitches as enormous palm fronds — the kind so frequently employed by Matisse.
It would be a stretch to call Armitage’s efforts a reconciliation of sorts between cultures whose conflicts and consonances remain in endless flux, but his street-level Modernism, with its mesmerizing interplay of form and idea, is compelling and memorable, drawing upon its roots in a specific place and time to compose metaphors anyone can touch.
Projects 110: Michael Armitage continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 20, 2020. The exhibition is organized by Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator, The Studio Museum in Harlem, with Legacy Russell, Associate Curator, The Studio Museum in Harlem.