Questioning Kenyan culture in the here and now has become paramount for Armitage. Although the parameters in which his work can be understood are broader than geographic boundaries, his impulse is local. He chooses images carefully with a Kenyan audience in mind, and the works directly reference major events in the country and consider the aftermath, where there is often potential for change. At first blush, the paintings seem to be entangled with personal and collective trauma—a plane crash Armitage experienced as a teenager, or the Mpeketoni and Westgate shopping mall attacks, for example. But interwoven with reality are allusions to regional mythology, symbols, and traditions. Armitage considers the works to be ultimately optimistic; in the conditions of contemporary culture, images fuel actions.
His painting #mydressmychoice
(2015), for example, refers to the assault at a bus station in Nairobi in November 2014, where a woman was stripped and molested by a group of men because of the clothes she was wearing. When video footage of the assault went viral
, it sparked demonstrations in the capital. In Armitage’s painting, a woman reclines in a classical pose reminiscent of traditional western nudes. The inherent beauty of the painted figure is a self-inquiry into the problematic conjecture of the image. “This is my culture that does this to women—do I have to own this too as part of my culture?” Armitage asks. Though he addresses issues such as LGBTQ and women’s rights, prostitution, and terrorism through his paintings, Armitage doesn’t consider himself an activist. “I’d never claim to be an activist for any issue,” he says. “It’s very important to me in developing my practice that my works are relevant in the cultural space, and I try to find a way for the paintings to have a place within society at home. I am not a politically motivated artist but my paintings consider different social and cultural issues that I come across: They’re questions I ask myself, questions I pose to culture at home and to the viewer.”
African cultures have long been exoticized by the voyeuristic or colonial gaze of western painters, contributing to the creation of what the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie refers to as a “single story
.” When Armitage moved to England to study (he earned a B.A. in Fine Arts at the Slade and a postgraduate diploma from the Royal Academy Schools), he experienced this directly. For example, he was asked repeatedly by professors if he had read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
. From his studio in London, Armitage’s observations from living abroad are expressed in the language of his painting, which mixes local iconography from the region with tropes from the European school he trained in.“My paintings play with the perception of a place, they deal with the identity of a place—the place being home—and I try to build a language in the work that includes signifiers of western art history, where foreign places are exoticized and dumbed down. I use that and turn it on itself,” he explains. “I have to chuckle to myself when someone says it doesn’t look authentically African, because the idea of looking from the outside is really important in the work, as are those tensions between local culture, history, and art history.”