Critics’ Picks

Michael Armitage, Slight of Hand, 2016, oil on lubugo bark cloth, 39 3/8 x 59 1/16".

Michael Armitage, Slight of Hand, 2016, oil on lubugo bark cloth, 39 3/8 x 59 1/16".

Hong Kong

Michael Armitage

White Cube | Hong Kong
50 Connaught Road
January 18–March 11, 2017

The Kenyan-born artist Michael Armitage was thirteen years old and waiting outside a cinema in Nairobi when he witnessed a bizarre scene: A naked man with a tire around his neck was being chased through the streets by a mob, in an act of unlawful gang justice. Necklacing (all works 2016) depicts Armitage’s memory of the pursued subject, with his head turned to reveal a clownlike face. The haunting and humorous image is framed by two sutures in the canvas’s surface. Armitage paints with oil on cloth made from Lubugo bark, which is more commonly used to make sacred fabrics. When stretched across a frame, the material naturally perforates.

Several other works concern Baikoko, a sexually explicit dance that originated in coastal Tanzania. In Baikoko at the Mouth of the Mwachema River, the dancers seem to hover above the ground. Their ecstatic practice, performed by women only, has faced growing government censorship. For Strange Fruit, the artist drew on a news item from Kenya in which a man accused of witchcraft was killed by a mob. His wife, bereft, committed suicide. A tree is portrayed from the vantage point of someone looking up at its canopy of leaves. The small soles of a woman’s feet dangle high among the twisting branches—the subtle horror of the scene is sharpened by the title’s reference to a well-known protest song about lynching.

The exhibition offers a curious and compassionate study of sexuality and survival in contemporary East Africa. There is a duality of feeling in these images—as though, to Armitage, the society he represents is both flawed and sacrosanct, like the cloth on which he paints.