Michael Armitage: a Hero’s Journey: a Kenyan at the MOMA, NY

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has re-opened with expanded gallery space.

The museum reopened, after a closure of only four months, on budget ($415 million) and on time. 

It is now not squarish but more of a rectangle, stretching down 53rd and reaching through to 54th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. 

The museum has increased its capacity by one third.  Its garden remains intact.






Mademoiselle Pogany looking inwards



Walking through Brancusi’s sculptures to a little balcony overlooking the garden and taking in a significant part of the 5 and a half storey extension down 53rd Street on the right.







 Views of the atrium, at least four stories high




The MOMA has made a commitment to display the globalization of ‘Modernist’ art and the diversity of its practitioners. 

Among the opening exhibitions is one of eight paintings by the Kenyan, Michael Armitage. 

Born in Nairobi in 1984, he grew up in Kenya and had his education in art in London.  He has studios in Nairobi and London.

He is Kenyan formed by an English educational system. His self-description.






Enasoit, 2019, oil on lubugo bark cloth.  Courtesy of the artist


Michael Armitage uses tree bark as canvas.  It is harvested and processed manually in Uganda.  Its customary use is by the Baganda as funeral cloth. It is one of their most culturally significant artifacts.

Strips of the outer skin of bark  are removed from the tree and healed while the tree re-barks its outer layer.

The strips are sewn together.  Holes sometimes remain in the cloth whose range of colours (top and underside) bleeds in the sienna range. 

The artist found this material being sold as place mats in a Nairobi market.  He has said that he uses this material both to locate his work and to keep himself from a false stability.  He uses the irregularities in the bark in visually rational ways in his work.







Details of Enasoit, 2019, oil on lubugo bark cloth.  Courtesy of the artist


Michael Armitage, of biracial descent, grew up in Kenya. 

The subjects of his work are drawn from the history, life, politics  (including political violence), culture, religious traditions (including possession);  the traditional  roles and treatment of women, animals, myths of east Africa. 

Sometimes he addresses subjects which are not east African.






The Promise of Change, 2018, oil on lubugo bark cloth.  Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY



The artist has said that he does not deal with race even if his work may  (be) enter(ed) into conversations about race.  For him, race is often used to limit discussion. 

For him, his work is about life which is about experience which is about culture in which everyone participates. 

Criticism of monkeys for humans – as in the painting just above and below – the artist described as a misunderstanding by critics of his intention.










Details of The Promise of Change, 2018, oil on lubugo bark cloth.  Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY



Michael Armitage is sensitive to the danger of seeming to exoticise his subject matter; of providing an opportunity of a certain voyeurism.

He avoids this by being very precise about what he is portraying. 

He does a great deal of research on the subject matter. 

He knows the details of the political events and the history of the cultural acts in question, and of the myths and stories he paints.  Also, he does his research in east Africa.  He travels there. 

He draws in Kenya from life in both senses of the word ‘draw’.







The Dispute and detail, 2015, oil on lubugo bark cloth.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2019 

On the right of the painting, there are two men, almost shoulder to shoulder, to make my blood pressure shoot up.

You don’t generally dispute with an individual in societies with traditional kinship values.  You dispute with the whole clan who line up to confront you.  Snakes weave their way around all three figures.



He paints in London. 

Sometimes he waits to paint a subject for a year or two.  Often he thinks about a particular painting in conjunction with others.

The subject matter marinates in a foreign bowl with a foreign pungency of spices in English rain and at a colder temperature. The paint probably is bought in England.









The Promised Land, 2019, and detail, oil on lubugo bark cloth.  Courtesy of the artist


It seems to me that the effusiveness of his style, the soft overlaps of his boundaries, and the close colour ranges of background/ subject/foreground,

the packing of the picture frame with elements, colour and markings of many kinds

so that there is no rest for the eye nor for the ever-judging brain to speed to premature judgments

and the fact that you have to look closely to make out the narrative, pinpoint the human emotion 

are also techniques to divert, to engage,  to suggest, to sponge up, to caution and overturn any glimmering thought of exoticism.




Mob violence (‘popular justice’) takes the form sometimes of burning alive the victim who has had a burning tire placed over them.







Necklacing, 2016, oil on lubugo bark cloth.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY on loan to MOMA, NY in 2019



This reproduces a memory of the artist of a man running past him followed by a crowd of people.  He had been caught stealing.  The look on his face is taken from dark Goya in which people on the lip of great danger are smiling.




Michael Armitage has said that, among the artists of his guidance are Kenyans:  Meek Gichugu, born 1932; Chelenge born 1961; Jak Katarikawe, 1938-2018).  And Europeans: Titian,Velazquez, Goya, Manet.


Manet, says the artist, practiced a meticulous planning of scenes of ordinary life which become extraordinary verging on diamond-surreal under the artist’s gaze/hand on his canvas.  This artist admires this very much. 


Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the MOMA notes, is here in the pose of male sex workers on the beaches of Mombasa in the painting below.  Among their clients are affluent foreign tourists whose reports I have read in the British press.


Les Demoiselles look out and about and at viewers  from their bold canvas. These male sex workers look down, their gazes invisible to us, nevertheless trouble, accuse us.


Michael Armitage here relays a hard  actual reality with a long history in his native east Africa.  He uses the lush colors of the beach and of sex to explode this truth slowly. The cat looks at us as though smoldering.






Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas.  Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973, Spanish. MOMA. NY




Nyali Beach Boys, 2016, oil on lubugo bark cloth.  Dallas Museum of Art on loan to MOMA, NY in 2019



These paintings are the Hero’s Journey.

A man born on one continent and of more than one race and culture crosses to his other island (continent) where he learns specialized skills 

with which he works out how to live with both his cultures using skills honed in each place; and how to represent each to each other and to us:






Mydas, 2019, oil on lubugo bark cloth.  Courtesy of the artist. 

The earth of Kenya in many places is reddish and rich and may be the water’s colorant.

This red, of course, could also be blood.

by means of subject matter: its  complexities, grounding in known time and place; by his techniques and by the memory – sacred memory reaching back into their history and forward to the integrity of their future – of the Baganda in every painting, touching his mind, his fingers






 Detail of Mydas 2019, oil on lubugo bark cloth.  Courtesy of the artist



by means of the example of his life, the doing of it across thousands of miles, the plunging into it, the refusal to evade difficult questions of history, representation and interpretation.


The fact that Michael Armitage has had privileges not universally available and that he chooses to be obtuse about the racial dynamite of painting – whatever his intention – an African as a monkey does not make his journey any less heroic.



Any more than the fact that millions of us live in more than one culture simultaneously means that we are not all in a minefield.






Detail of Mydas 2019, oil on lubugo bark cloth.  Courtesy of the artist



Michael Armitage‘s journey is heroic for the manner of his conduct and for the exercise of his privileges 



And important because our internet is currently generating and re-inforcing our identities (multiple identities and some tiny!)  to the detriment of our commons and our politics and our sanity.




And important because the commonality of the life and life-long experience  of Michael Armitage and many of us was, is and will be one of the salvations of our species (if  there will be a will be). 

Michael Armitage is proceeding with luck, thoughtfulness, courage and flair.  In public.






Detail of Mydas 2019, oil on lubugo bark cloth.  Courtesy of the artist



This is the Hero’s Journey in colour through a labyrinth embedded in human consciousness and known and re-formed, re-lit for every human who takes up his and her courage to enter it, to risk it.




Not ceasing from exploring, as the poet of Little Gidding says, to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time….Through the unknown, unremembered gate……



Seraph, 2017, oil on lubugo cloth.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY 

Seraph – highest order of angels for Christians – as a tree, perhaps the lubugo – encircling humans backwards in time.

3 thoughts on “Michael Armitage: a Hero’s Journey: a Kenyan at the MOMA, NY

  1. This is fascinating and inspiring. I loved his work and the setting and your commentary. Thank you for your generous sharing.

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