Until October 29, 2023, the Kunsthaus Bregenz art gallery presents a new exhibition by contemporary artist Michael Armitage entitled “Pathos and the Twilight of the Idle“. This is the first presentation of the Anglo-Kenyan painter’s complete oeuvre in Austria. Through a troubling and ambiguous artistic panorama, Michael Armitage explores several notions essential to life in society.
Born in Nairobi in 1984, Michael Armitage is one of the most important contemporary artists of our time, renowned for his captivating large-scale figurative paintings. After graduating from London’s Slade School of Fine Art in 2007, he went on to study at the Royal Academy Schools in London, where he also graduated in 2010. His paintings explore themes such as local rituals, political demonstrations, and plant and animal life, particularly in relation to Kenya’s current social and political context. His work is distinguished by the use of vivid colors, complex patterns and an expressive painting technique that has won over audiences and visual art enthusiasts alike.
In his huge canvases, Michael Armitage depicts figures in frozen landscapes, creating an almost hypnotic atmosphere that evokes a deep sense of reverie. The striking depth and unsettling mysteriousness of his work is achieved by applying several layers of paint, which are then stripped and reworked. Through a somnambulant background and velvety images full of formal beauty, the motifs depicted in these paintings are imbued with history and current political events, adding an extra dimension to his artistic work.
The visual rendering achieved on the paintings also owes its particularity to the image support. Michael Armitage uses bark cloth as a support for his paintings. To make it, the outer layer of Ugandan ficus bark is peeled off, lightly burned and beaten to a smooth finish. In a complex process, the hard organic material is transformed into a soft, taut fabric called “Lubugo“. The pieces of fabric are then sewn together to achieve substantial sizes. Seams, holes and irregularities remain visible under the coat of paint. They contribute to the charm and uniqueness of the image, and are therefore an integral part of the canvas.
“Pathos and the twilight of the idle” was created after the contemporary artist attended a demonstration by Kenya’s largest opposition party in Nairobi in 2017. This large-format vertical painting features a silhouette at its center, seemingly approaching the audience. A singular facial expression, hunched shoulders, two tear gas canisters strapped to his chest and waist, multiplied hands holding sand-colored slingshots – all these details painted by the British Kenyan artist express the character’s willingness to accuse and fight back against his oppressors. Other demonstrators appear in the painting, dressed burlesquely in wigs, crowns and costumes, with the figure in the center dressed in a bikini top.
Michael Armitage has declared his interest in people rather than leaders. So, exempting topical political subjects, the artist is also developing an interest in forms of traditional religious imagery. The baldachin in the upper part of the painting refers to an altar. In addition, the man in the upper center of the picture is an imitation of the Body of Christ Dead in the Tomb by Hans Holbein, 1521-1522. In his artistic practice, the Anglo-Kenyan artist’s intensely colorful and moving canvases depict rich narratives interwoven with significant events and his creative imagination. He uses traditional features of European painting to create an unsettling sense of déjà-vu.
Michael Armitage‘s exhibition “Pathos and the Twilight of the Idle” at Kunsthaus Bregenz offers a fascinating insight into the artistic world of this renowned contemporary artist. Through his large-scale paintings, Michael Armitage explores profound themes while highlighting Kenya’s current social and political context. The use of vivid colors, intricate patterns and expressive painting technique lends his works a captivating visual power. The characters evolving in frozen landscapes create an enchanting atmosphere, inviting the viewer to plunge into a deep reverie. This is a unique opportunity to discover the complete works of this talented artist, and to be carried away by his captivating artistic exploration.