Nyali Beach Boys
Michael Armitage ( British, born Kenya, 1984 )
From the 2013 Westgate Shopping Mall attacks to the #mydressmychoice response to a series of sexual assaults, Michael Armitage responds to current events and contemporary issues that have resonated both in Kenya and around the world. Embedded in his compositions are the rich histories, iconographies, and landscapes of East Africa. Even his choice of materials is imbued with extra significance: Armitage paints with oil not on cotton canvas but on Lubugo, a Ugandan bark that is beaten into a material to be used as ceremonial garments. However, the Lubugo stretched taut occasionally has imperfections, holes, and indentations, lending an additional element of visual complexity to the image.
Nyali Beach Boys recalls both the composition of the iconic Picasso painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and the gestural, “unfinished” brush strokes of Manet’s Olympia (1863). Five nude men, painted fluidly in hues of blacks, yellows, and blues, stand facing forward in the painting’s foreground. In place of the basket of fruit in Picasso’s painting is a black cat, a long-standing art-historical reference to prostitution (seen also in Olympia). The men are known colloquially as “beach boys,” or prostitutes who search the beach for wealthy female European tourists. In this frank depiction of the beach boys, Armitage simultaneously calls attention to both historical and contemporary dialogues between Africa and Europe; apparent is the Western trope of the “primitive” in art, exemplified in Picasso’s interest in African masks, as well as the widespread—yet covert—role of “beach boys” in Kenya’s tourism industry.
Anna Katherine Brodbeck, ed., TWO X TWO X TWENTY: Two Decades Supporting Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art), 2018, 278.