‘Another’s Tongue’ brings together works on paper that the Kenyan-British artist Michael Armitage draws from life, his memory and other sources, including his video notes which form the epilogue of the exhibition.
In fluid ink studies, Armitage paints the expanse of the Kenyan landscape and its wildlife, as well as life on the streets in urban East Africa. His vivid character sketches capture the energy of performers, prophets, musicians, the costumed crowds at Kenyan election rallies, and the illegal brewers in Nairobi’s slums. By his choice of title, ‘Another’s Tongue’, Armitage acknowledges the multitude of voices that he weaves into his works.
‘As with Walter Sickert’s quote, ‘a page torn from the book of life’, I would like all of the works to be different, but also unified. Different in the sense that every day is different, different in that experiences are always different, I’d like the work to reflect that sort of change and the way a mind changes, the way an attitude shifts’.
In this ongoing series, Armitage explores the distilleries situated along polluted tributaries of the Mathare valley, home to the illegal trade of the lethal spirit chang’aa, which Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor recently wrote about in Granta magazine.
‘Along a harrowed river’s banks chugs an alchemical and menacing presence; large, round grey-black vessels belching fire and vapour. These are tended mostly by men, who move like agile phantoms. They shuffle inside, along, into, out of the green-black putrid stew that is the Mathare River. In intervals, a dramatic hissing erupts, spewing brown steam into the atmosphere, perfuming the atmosphere with an unexpected sweetness. And then the passing wind mixes the aroma with the stench of human disorder emanating from the river and drives it into our nostrils. At least we now know what Nairobi really smells like. Pipes and tubes lead into other black-brown metal canisters, these former oil cans. This is ‘The Base’, a restricted area. The elixir being distilled is called chang’aa, in regular Kiswahili. In the valley, it is known as ‘cham’ or ‘steam’. The set-up is mesmerising.’
Forty of Armitage’s drawings were first shown at the 58th Venice Biennale, in the exhibition ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’, curated by Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff. Armitage unifies his diverse subject matter by the use of the medium Prout’s brown ink. Traditionally used for architectural renderings, the burnt umber ink allows Armitage to layer and dilute his marks in a way analogous to the building-up and rubbing-down of his painting practice. Tonal brushwork with strong chiaroscuro brings to life expressive facial and physical features, capturing a fleeting expression or glimpsed moment with economy and sensitivity.
‘[Armitage] is clearly more interested in the poetic or philosophical significance of his visual material than in its purely documentary value. And so he is typically drawn to what takes place away from the political stage: the moving human dramas or “sub- plots” that distract from and question the dominant political narrative, telling different, often competing, stories.’
‘The ink drawings clarify Armitage’s acute sense for detail and event, as well as the laconic mark-making that informs his magical fauvist renderings of Kenyan politics.’
During the 2017 Kenyan elections, Armitage joined a local TV crew at an opposition rally in Uhuru Park in the centre of Nairobi. Caught up in the large crowds, Armitage recalls a tree full of perching observers, and carnivalesque revellers dressed up in wigs, masks and carrying slings. These characters were later caught on camera running from teargas and hurling stones at the police, who retaliated with gunfire. Many of the works on paper derive from film footage of these scenes, and later informed a series of paintings.
Listen: 'Picturing Politics: An Artists Response to the Kenyan Election'
To coincide with ‘Another’s Tongue’, White Cube and Michael Armitage are proud to release the edition Dream and Refuge (2020), with all of the proceeds going to charities in Kenya providing vital aid to communities affected by the pandemic.
Further information on edition and charities
Michael Armitage was born in 1984 in Nairobi, Kenya. He works between Nairobi and London where, from 2007 until 2010, he studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Royal Academy Schools. Within the last year, Armitage has participated in the 58th Venice Biennale and had solo exhibitions at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney, Museum of Modern Art, New York in collaboration with the Studio Museum Harlem, and the Norval Foundation, Cape Town.Visit Artist Page
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