Visions of Paradise: Michael Armitage at the Royal Academy

The historic square is lined with a Victorian dream of modernity where chemistry, physics, medicine, history, and art neatly coexist. Entering, you duck past the sciences, avoid the history, as much as possible, and head straight for art. Guarded not only by large wooden doors, hidden amongst 17th century archways, the entrance to the gallery is also interrupted by a café. You push forward. Inside, you are directed ‘to the back, turn left’ where you begin your ascent. At the top of a dizzying metal staircase, under sunlight’s bright white glare, you enter a vision of paradise that, stitched and holed, slowly unravels.

Responding partly to the highly contested 2017 Kenyan election campaign, which promoted a return to ‘the promised land’, ‘Paradise Edict’ explores contemporary East African politics whilst unpicking colonialist visions of paradise. Combining some of Michael Armitage’s best-known works, alongside 31 paintings from hand-selected East African artists, the exhibition calls forth memories of both Goya and Gauguin with narratives of human irrationality told in a refreshing light. 

Painting primarily on lubugo cloth – a fabric traditionally used in burial ceremonies by the Baganda people – Michael Armitage draws on a deep well of cultural references to challenge and poke fun at the ideological tropes that pervade modern-day politics, and the Western canon of art history. Building his images layer by colourful layer, Armitage vividly depicts Edenic visions that mingle the human with the non-human. In Paradise Edict (2019), for example, people pulse in and out of focus amongst the thriving vegetation blurring the line between reality and myth. Here, heavenly ascent is halted as arms reach out from the forest cover. Similarly, Meek Gichugu’s No Erotic Them Say (c.1992) captures an interspecies mingling of body parts whilst Sane Wadu’s My Life (1980 – 1990) brings into focus the realities of an agrarian lifestyle. The message of these works is clear: paradise is not all that it is promised to be.

Edenic imagery is further deployed in Antigone (2018) where a woman sits poised on a bed, removing the fig leaf that covers her genitals. To her right sits a monkey, which pulls back the veil between the viewer and the woman, whilst a group of people look-in through the room’s window. In this the viewer is made a voyeuristic accomplice to the actions of those depicted, our own innocence removed.

Dissolution of innocence is further explored in both Baboon (2016) and Leopard print seducer (2016) where two monkeys cover their modesty with a not-so-subtle bunch of bananas in the former, and a leopard print bikini in the latter. The relaxed recline of Armitage’s Baboon mirrors Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), and the leopard print bikini draws on an all too popular commercial aesthetic. Reaching across time for their inspiration, these two depictions are at once disturbingly seductive and sharply humorous. 

The compilation of paintings in this exhibition challenge seemingly stable ideas of nature and paradise, whilst undermining the colonialists’ diminishing view of African idyll. ‘Paradise Edict’ offers a highly refreshing perspective on ideas that pervade much of art history.

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Troy Fielder

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September 2021
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