Image: Michael Armitage, The Chicken Thief (detail), 2019. Oil on lubugo bark cloth. 200 x 150 cm. Courtesy the Artist and White Cube © Michael Armitage © White Cube (Theo Christelis).
Recently reopened following 5 months of closure, the Royal Academy of Arts is displaying Michael Armitage: Paradise Edict, an exhibition that includes 15 of the artist's recent large-scale lubugo barkcloth works alongside a selection of works by East African artists who have inspired him. Born in Kenya in 1984, Michael Armitage graduated from the RA Schools in 2010 and now works between Nairobi and London. In his paintings, Armitage reflects on his experiences in Kenya and on current events, while drawing on contemporary East African art and European art history. Bridging artistic traditions, he looks towards the work of Jak Katarikawe, Meek Gichugu and Chelenge van Rampelberg as well as Titian, Francisco de Goya and Paul Gauguin. In his rich and multi-layered narrative paintings, Armitage questions social norms, religious ideology, politics and cultural clichés.
Michael Armitage: Paradise Edict will span the last seven years of Armitage’s work, featuring landscapes, allegorical figures and paintings inspired by the 2017 Kenyan general elections. His works are painted on lubugo bark cloth, a material traditionally made in Uganda from the inner bark of the Mutuba tree or Natal fig by the Baganda people. Lubugo, which can be translated as ‘funeral cloth’, is a highly prestigious material used for ceremonial purposes and is imbued with cultural meaning. After stumbling across lubugo in one of Nairobi’s many tourist markets, Armitage discovered that, when stretched, primed and treated, the cloth took on many qualities of canvas traditionally used by painters in the west and allowed a subtle subversion of the artistic tradition he was trained in.
The material’s natural imperfections – its defects, ridges, roughness, joins and holes – are the bedrock of his paintings that echo Kenyan life: lush, riotous, overwhelming, incomplete, becoming. Armitage finds stories in the real world that he writes onto cloth with paint.
For those looking to explore the creative possibilities of barkcloth, we’re delighted that textile consultant Lesli Robertson will be hosting a workshop for Selvedge on the textile on Saturday 6 and Sunday 7 November 2021. Working on natural and clay-dyed lubugo barkcloth sourced from ninth-generation craftsmen at Bukomansimbi Organic Tree Farmers Association in Uganda, Lesli will lead participants through several creative projects to explore the potential of this material in design, including print, stitch, and deconstruction techniques. The workshop is open to any and all abilities.
To find out more about the workshop, visit the event page: Ugandan Barkcloth with Lesli Robertson