The original was created using oil on Lugubo bark cloth.
"Exoticism and ‘otherness’ is something that I think about a lot in my work. So what happens in a situation where your culture is changing, but you’re wanting to hold onto some things, when maybe the function of something is gone but you use it in your work out of some sense of identity? And what happens when that becomes a performance for somebody else, say within tourism, or for an international audience? You end up with a self-exoticising version of it. That’s something I’m very aware of and concerned about when I’m making my work."
Nairobi born Michael Armitage spends his time living and working between Kenya and London. He attended art school in London and earned a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art from the Slade School of Fine Art in 2007 and a Postgraduate Diploma from the Royal Academy Schools in 2010.
In his narrative paintings, Armitage merges traditional Western art styles with East African subjects, materials, and perspectives and is primarily interested in the social and political issues facing our contemporary world today. His paintings combine narratives drawn from his memories, and discourses from both Western and East African points of view.
Blending abstract and figurative styles, Armitage draws inspiration from artists like Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso, yet with his own unique approach. His bright color palette and expressionistic lines mirror the saturated canvases Gauguin painted in Tahiti. However, unlike Gauguin, who depicted the island and its inhabitants from a distinctly Western perspective, one that tended to exoticize the natives, Armitage celebrates his figures from a viewpoint that is both contemporary and authentic.
Armitage also pays tribute to his roots in Africa by painting his narratives on bark cloth (also called lubugo cloth) harvested from ficus trees. In Uganda, bark cloth is a traditional fabric used for burial shrouds and ceremonial clothing. Recently, however, it has been commercialized and sold in East African markets as placemats, baskets and other tourist-driven novelties. The artist’s chosen medium then is packed with social and political meaning.
By stitching together irregularly shaped pieces of the bark cloth, Armitage creates large painting surfaces teeming with irregularities like ripples, ridges, divots and holes that themselves become elements within his compositions. The imperfect surface of the bark cloth affects how the oil paint is applied and dries, adding to the fluidity of the artist’s amorphic figures and shapes. Additionally, these imperfections often resemble wounds or scars left by acts of aggression.
In his paintings, Armitage chooses subject matter that reflects contemporary events in his native Kenya. He is often inspired by images he finds in African popular culture, including websites, newspapers, posters, and music videos. His dream-like imagery exposes the harsh realities of Kenya’s social inequalities, violent upheavals and extreme disparities in wealth.
In Baikoko at the Mouth of the Mwachema River, Armitage celebrates the region’s culturally rooted appreciation of sensuality by featuring pink-clad Baikoko dancers positioned with their backs to the viewer. Baikoko is a highly sexualized dance that originated on the coast of Tanzania. It is typically performed between women, and often used by mothers to identify a suitable wife for their son. A recent resurgence in the popularity and notoriety of Baikoko can be linked to Tanzanian pop star Diamond Platnumz, who featured a group of women dancing Baikoko in the music video for his 2015 song Nasema Nawe. Given its sexually explicit nature, Baikoko dancers have faced increasing restrictions by the Tanzanian government. Judged as dangerous by authorities it was banned in public areas in Tanzania in 2015. Baikoko at the Mouth of the Mwachema River is a reflection then on the phenomenon of the dance itself as well as the social context in which it is both performed and controlled.
Art has the power to move people to social change. By emphasizing social issues that are often denied or ignored, Armitage hopes to create works that compel the viewer to act and be part of the changes that need to take place to make a better world. Social justice art like his encompasses a wide range of visual and performing arts that aim to raise critical consciousness, build community, and motivate individuals to promote social change. What role do you think the arts can play in changing society and culture? Which artists do you believe have created meaningful change? Do some research about the artist(s) who inspire you most. Create a work of art in any genre that addresses an issue that you feel passionate about and share it on social media and with the Emergency Art Museum at email@example.com
*abstract – A term generally used to describe art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.
figurative – Representing a form or figure in art that retains clear ties to the real world.
*narrative art – Narrative art is art that tells a story, either as a moment in an ongoing story or as a sequence of events unfolding over time. Some of the earliest evidence of human art suggests that people told stories with pictures.
*palette – A palette is a smooth, flat surface on which artists set out and mix their colors before painting, often designed to be held in the hand. It is also the range of colors used by an artist in a painting.
*social justice art – Encompasses a wide range of visual and performing arts that aim to raise critical consciousness, build community, and motivate individuals to promote social change.
For more information on the artist, visit
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*The Emergency Art Museum claims no ownership, or copyright to any materials found here, or on-site. The Emergency Art Museum functions solely as a non-commercial, non-profit, educational resource for the community. All artwork represented or reproduced, has been done so for educational purposes only under the fair use act.
-Johnny DePalma, Owner / Curator
-Janelle Graves, Art Historian / Museum Educator