21 September – 30 October 2022
White Cube Bermondsey
White Cube Bermondsey is pleased to present ‘Amongst the Living’, an exhibition of works by Michael Armitage alongside sculptures by Seyni Awa Camara.
Following Armitage’s recent show at Kunsthalle Basel, ‘You, Who Are Still Alive’, this exhibition features recent paintings and works on paper produced during the past three years in London and Nairobi. Having admired the work of Senegalese artist Seyni Awa Camara over many years, Armitage has included a group of Camara’s terracotta sculptures in this, the first major presentation of her work in the UK.
Set within East Africa, Armitage weaves narratives drawn from literature, film, politics, history and myth. The subjects for these new paintings are drawn from a wide range of sources, reimagined with a sensibility that might be likened to magic realism. Whether painted outdoors in Kenya or in Armitage’s London studio, his landscape, or urban vistas, collide timescales – compressing past and present, the real and imagined. Multiple viewpoints, superimpositions of outlines and figures, saturated and vaporous swathes of vivid colour and passages of translucent wash create a dense pictorial language in which materiality and form effortlessly meld, where subject and subtext have equal status and thematic power.
Painting with oil on Lubugo, a cloth made from fig tree bark from Uganda that is traditionally used in ceremonial burial rituals, Armitage’s choice of ground is resonant: an attempt, he has remarked, to both locate and destabilise the subjects of his paintings. Beaten, stretched taut and then sewn together, Lubugo has a characterful, natural tactility with pitting, texture and holes that offer a resistance to paint. Working with this ground, in Armitage’s paintings the surface and support work together as integral components of the pictorial space.
Account of an Illiterate Man (2020), inspired by a patch of virgin forest near the artist’s family home, shows a dark mass of indigenous vines and creepers, some of which are known to possess medicinal properties. This thicket of vegetation with its potential for healing represents a hidden culture of knowledge: a wisdom and understanding not associated with literacy but with a waning oral tradition. Similar natural forms populate Cave (2021), a painting in which we look down into a chromatic, rainbow coloured embryonic sac enclosing a head and body, seemingly blown into shape through a valve by a man and a woman. Both works are characterised by imagery where nothing appears grounded, their forms seemingly fixed only by the luminous intensity of the colour palette.
Painting en plein air within the Kenyan landscape for the first time, the artist created two works based on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s acclaimed novel The Perfect Nine (first published in 2018). An epic story of the struggle between nature and nurture, it chronicles the attempts to secure husbands for the ten daughters of the East African Gīkuūyū people’s founding father. In The Perfect Nine (2022), Armitage depicts Warigia, the tenth daughter, who is born severely disabled yet becomes the unlikely heroine of the story. Warigia (2022), portrays her as she realises she is cured of her disabilities – emerging from the lake as she pulls her body upright using a boulder for support, she is followed by a strange monitor lizard who seems to bear witness to the event.
Conceived on the scale of a classical history painting, Dandora (Xala, Musicians) (2022) takes its point of departure from the film Xala (1975) by Ousmane Sembène. Featuring a gathering of nomadic musicians, trash pickers and livestock that roam a landscape of smouldering rubbish heaps, it reimagines this neglected space. Linking the abject with the phantasmagorical, this is a panoramic vision of Dandora, Nairobi’s principal rubbish dump, where foragers and animals habitually assemble. Three Boys at Dawn (2022) considers similarly urban subject matter – street boys sniffing glue for a temporary high. Here, flowing, fused forms suggest the illusory or magical nature of a dream, in which flamingos transfigure from plumes of smoke and meander out of the boys’ exhaling mouths.
Exploring individual subjects within the throng of communal assembly, Armitage’s painting Head of Koitalel (2021) confronts the violence of Kenya’s colonial legacy. In this work Armitage exhumes the story of Koitalel Arap Samoei (1860−1905), an Orkoiyot and spiritual and political leader of the Kenyan Nandi people who led the revolt against the British and was subsequently tricked and beheaded. In sympathy with the painting’s tragic subject, the stitching visible in the Lubugo cloth provides a compositional dynamic that demarcates areas of colour and dramatically bifurcates Koitalel’s severed, lifeless head. Curfew (Likoni, March 27, 2020) (2022) references more recent political upheaval, using reversed perspectives, overlaid imagery, brilliant colour and dense crowd scenes to convey the urgent, chaotic nature of life during the Covid lockdown of 2020 and 2021. By contrast, in Holding Cell (2021) violence is inferred, the subtext of an image based on the accounts of overcrowding in Nairobi police cells.
As Elena Filipovic has written, Armitage’s paintings describe the contradictions of a post-colonial modernity where matters of life and death are always present. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the painting You, Who Are Still Alive (2022) in which a supine figure is caught between states of existence, a mask-like apparition hovering just above his face; a spectral focus within a sparse composition.
Seyni Awa Camara
‘The experience of seeing Camara’s sculptures is difficult to articulate. It is how I would imagine it would feel to meet a voiceless spirit of someone you once knew well − your imagination struggling to put a single image from your memories to the spirit yet knowing exactly who they are. In this sense there is something extremely familiar yet totally other worldly about Camara’s sculptures.’
– Michael Armitage, 2022
Now in her eighties, Seyni Awa Camara lives and works in the Casamancian village of Bignona, Senegal, where she was born. Initiated into the traditional techniques of ceramics by her mother when she was a child, Camara’s own practice quickly moved away from the utilitarian to the artistic, in visions guided by what she terms as gifts. Talking about herself and her two brothers, Camara has said: ‘We were sheltered by God’s spirits, who taught us to work with clay.’
Camara has evolved her own distinct and expressive form of sculpture – a profoundly mystical practice which sees her creating sculptures that range in size from just over twenty inches to a more totemic scale of seven or eight feet tall. Modelled by hand, the sculptures are fired on a wooden pyre in a yard in front of the artist’s house, sometimes adding ore or treating the clay with putrefied tree pods to create a burnished finish to the terracotta. Like Armitage’s use of Lubugo, Camara works with the most natural media − earth itself, dug, sifted and mixed into a clay.
Giving shape to stories, facts and feelings – either dreamed, revealed or imagined – her work is based on legends, observation, objects and landscape as well as her own personal experience as a Senegalese female artist. Camara and Armitage share an interest in a broad spectrum of themes, including a focus on humanity and maternity as well as a pictorial language – from the use of multiple figures and animals, distorted perspectives and phantasmagorical visions through to the organic materials sourced from natural environs within the African continent.
Camara’s studio practice remains largely unchanged to this day. Her most recent and comprehensive interview, part of a film by Senegalese artist and filmmaker Fatou Kandé Senghor which White Cube is screening in the auditorium to complement the exhibition, is a window into her life and work, through the perspective of a female filmmaker.
Seyni Awa Camara
Seyni Awa Camara was born in Bignona, Senegal in 1945, where she still is based. Camara’s sculptures have been the subject of significant exhibitions including ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, Centre Pompidou and Halle de la Villette, Paris (1989)*; ‘Plateau of Humankind’ curated by Harald Szeemann, 49th Venice Biennale (2001); ‘100% Africa’, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (2007)*; ‘Art/Afrique, Le nouvel atelier’, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (2017)*; and ‘Alpha Crucis – Contemporary African Art’, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo* (2020) amongst others. This will be the first focused presentation of the artist’s work in London.
*Curated by André Magnin, who has worked with Seyni Awa Camara internationally since the late 1980s. White Cube would like to thank Magnin for his insight, support and guidance with this exhibition.
Fatou Kandé Senghor
Fatou Kandé Senghor (born in 1971 in Dakar, Senegal), is an award-winning visual artist, documentary filmmaker and educator. Her 2014 film Donner Naissance (Giving Birth), a profile of Senegalese sculptor Seyni Awa Camara, was selected for the 56th Venice Biennale (2015). Senghor, who lives and works in Dakar, has written widely on gender, culture, history and African cinema, and is the founder of Waru Studio, a space for young artists and filmmakers to explore the intersection of art-science-technology and politics in Africa.
A new monograph on Michael Armitage, featuring writing by South African singer, actor and author Nakhane, an extract from award-winning novelist, playwright and essayist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s recent epic The Perfect Nine (2020), and essays by director of Kunsthalle Basel Elena Filipovic and British painter Nicholas Hatfull, is co-published by Kunsthalle Basel and White Cube to coincide with the exhibition.