Bridging Continents: Michael Armitage’s Journey from East Africa to the Royal Academy

Michael Armitage was born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1984. As a young child growing up in East Africa, Armitage was surrounded by the vibrant colors, textures and imagery of the region. He spent his early years immersed in the local art and culture, visiting local galleries and museums where he developed an appreciation for African aesthetics and narratives. 

Armitage displayed artistic talent and instincts from a very young age. His parents encouraged his creative pursuits, providing him with art supplies and enrolling him in after-school art classes. During his childhood in Nairobi, Armitage was particularly inspired by the rich artistic heritage of Kenya and neighboring countries. He gravitated towards the work of celebrated African artists like El Anatsui and Ugandan sculptor Fred Kato, studying their use of found materials and exploration of social issues.

This early exposure to East African art had a profound influence on Armitage’s artistic vision and would later be reflected in his own acclaimed work. While his family later relocated to London, the memories and artistic perspective formed during his upbringing in Kenya continued to shape Armitage’s unique creative voice.

Art Studies in London

Michael Armitage made the pivotal decision to pursue his artistic education abroad in London. In 2000, he enrolled at the prestigious Slade School of Art, part of University College London. This move exposed Armitage to new people, ideas, and techniques that would profoundly impact his development as an artist. 

At the Slade, Armitage honed his skills in painting and printmaking under the guidance of experienced faculty. He experimented with different styles and mediums, moving from figurative works to increasingly abstract compositions. The multicultural student body and access to work by international artists at London galleries and museums expanded Armitage’s frame of artistic reference. He found inspiration in modern painters like Peter Doig as well as traditional African art.

During his studies, Armitage dedicated himself wholeheartedly to his art. He spent long hours in the studio perfecting his craft. His hard work led to recognition; in 2003, he won the Slade Prize for excellence in painting. Through this immersive experience in London’s thriving art scene, Armitage gained the technical abilities and creative vision that would distinguish him as an important contemporary artist.

Unique Artistic Style

Michael Armitage’s work combines European and African artistic influences in a unique collage technique. He draws inspiration from East African art and mythology as well as European masters like Titian, Velázquez, Goya, and Manet. 

Armitage overlays painted figures and scenes on backgrounds of East African printed fabrics known as kanga. This juxtaposition of traditional fabrics with contemporary subjects creates visually arresting and thought-provoking images. His technique of layering printed fabrics, newsprint, old posters, and pages from biology textbooks under oil paint is a contemporary take on traditional collage.

Recurring themes in Armitage’s work include East African folklore, colonialism, globalization, the human condition, and the complexities of modern Kenya. His dreamlike scenes often depict lone human figures integrated with animal forms in lush, otherworldly landscapes. There is a surreal quality to his imagery that invites deeper reflection on human nature, life’s joys and struggles, and the passage of time.

While inspired by classical European art, Armitage transforms and Africanizes historical styles and narratives in innovative ways. His unique melding of African and European aesthetics results in a completely original artistic voice.

Themes in His Art

Armitage’s art explores themes relating to Kenyan culture, folklore, and mythology. He draws inspiration from African parables and stories he heard growing up, reinterpreting them through his unique artistic lens. 

For example, his work often depicts hybrid creatures from Luo mythology, blending human and animal figures together in surreal compositions. He also incorporates patterns and textiles from various Kenyan ethnic groups into his paintings. This blending of traditional African visual culture with contemporary styles creates an ambiguous tension in his narratives.

Beyond Kenyan themes, Armitage’s work frequently provides commentary on political and social issues across Africa. He addresses topics like corruption, violence, inequality, and the legacy of colonialism. While avoiding direct critique, his paintings subtly portray the complexities of modern African life and history. The dreamlike quality of his images allows room for multiple interpretations.

Ambiguity is a hallmark of Armitage’s style. Rather than depicting clear narratives, his work invites the viewer to reflect on the ambiguous figures, objects, and scenarios portrayed. There is often an unsettling feeling evoked by his juxtaposition of elements from nature, religion, folklore, and current events. His open-ended visual storytelling prompts introspection about society as well as the human condition.

Work in Public Collections

Despite being a young artist, Michael Armitage’s work is already held in numerous prestigious public collections around the world. 

The Tate Modern in London owns several of Armitage’s large paintings, including The Healing (2018) and Paradise Edict (2014). These demonstrate his integration of European oil painting techniques with East African motifs and perspectives.

In the United States, his work has been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas also has an Armitage painting in its contemporary African art collection.

Armitage has produced site-specific commissions for institutions such as the Norval Foundation in Cape Town, South Africa and the Met Breuer museum in New York City. These large-scale commissioned works attest to the global demand for his one-of-a-kind artistic vision. 

By collecting Armitage so extensively early in his career, these museums recognize both his current achievement and future potential in the art world. The prestige and trust placed in Armitage’s work solidifies his reputation as an important young artist bridging continents and cultures.

Return to Africa

After over a decade living and working in London, Armitage felt drawn back to Kenya. In recent years, he has spent significant time in Nairobi and various rural areas across Kenya. 

Armitage now splits his time between London and Nairobi. He maintains a studio in Nairobi and has participated in several artist residencies across Kenya. These extended stays have allowed him to reconnect with the landscapes, cultures, and artistic traditions that first inspired him.

Several recent projects have focused on bringing international attention to contemporary Kenyan art. In 2017, Armitage co-curated an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City featuring work from the pioneering Circle Art Group in Nairobi. 

In 2021, Armitage undertook a residency at Kuona Trust in Nairobi, developing an expansive new body of work engaging with Kenyan folklore. His time exploring remote regions of Kenya has clearly influenced his recent paintings and prints. African textiles, natural motifs, cultural symbols, and references to mythology are woven throughout these pieces.

While his unique artistic voice has continued to evolve, Armitage remains committed to highlighting the diversity of African contemporary art on the global stage. As he once said, “My Kenyan roots are integral to who I am as an artist”. Even from his new role at the Royal Academy in London, Armitage continues bridging continents through his work.

Advice for Young Artists

Armitage is passionate about mentoring and supporting the next generation of African artists. He often speaks of the challenges he faced as a young artist from Kenya trying to break into the elite contemporary art world based in Europe and America. 

Some of his advice for young creatives includes:

Stay true to your vision – Don’t let others dictate what kind of art you should make. Bring your unique cultural influences into your work.

Work hard and persevere – The path to success as an artist is long and difficult. You have to work incredibly hard and face many rejections. Persist through the tough times.

Find mentors and a community – Seek out established artists, gallerists, curators and others who can provide guidance and support. Surround yourself with others who understand the journey.

Consider opportunities abroad – While remaining connected to your roots, look for educational and career opportunities outside your home country. Exposure to new ideas, people and places can enrich your artistic practice.

Give back – As you progress in your career, make an effort to uplift other artists from your culture and homeland. Pay your success forward.

Armitage strives to lead by example, demonstrating that artists from across Africa have the talent to compete on the global contemporary art stage. He wants to inspire young creatives to bring the aesthetics, traditions and perspectives of African art to the world.