Michael Armitage, a brief history of dazzling success

[16 Apr 2021]

The Contemporary art market is currently showing a clear preference for figurative painting, especially if it addresses the themes of racial and sexual identities. The most popular artists on the other side of the Atlantic are often those who create work is related to the major social-cultural upheavals of our times.

The works of Michael Armitage, a 36-year-old artist from Kenya, entered the art market at this key moment in the redefinition of museum collections, as well as American and British private collections. Completely ignored six years ago – as he himself admits – he has become one of the new stars of the art market in record time.

Michael ARMITAGE (1984) paints on lugubo, the bark of a Ugandan fig tree which, once washed, beaten and stretched into a fabric is traditionally used for death shrouds or for making ritual clothing. It can also be found in prosaic objects sold in Nairobi’s tourist markets. This base material allowed him to plant the roots of his painting in East Africa where he spent his childhood. Trained at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Royal Academy in London, the artist graduated in 2010. Since then, Armitage has become one of the representatives of new Kenyan painting that collectors have been snapping up. Several of his monumental paintings are being shown soon at the same Royal Academy as part of an exhibition titled Paradise Edict.


Michael Armitage’s canvases began to attract attention when his work was shown at the White Cube in London in 2015. In the same year, he participated in various group exhibitions in New York, Beijing, Turin and Lyon (Contemporary art biennial). Then, White Cube decided to show his work in Hong Kong (2017) with an exhibition titled Strange Fruit (title of a famous jazz ballad evoking the lynching of African-Americans).

On the rough and rugged lugubo ‘canvases’ presented by the White Cube, Armitage intersects real and fantasy aspects of Kenya. Stories, customs, political ideologies, gossip and personal memories respond to each other in an aesthetic tension situated between “European traditions and East African modernism”.

One of the canvases on display, Necklacing, attracted the attention of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, which acquired the work in 2018 from White Cube. The work represents a naked man with a clownish face, wearing a tire around his neck. This is a direct reference to a common lynching practice in South Africa during the 1980s of setting fire to a person accused of a felony by placing them inside a gasoline-soaked tire. As a child, Armitage witnessed a settling of scores in Nairobi conducted in the same terrible way.

“The Conservationists (2015) reached $1.52 million at auction, 25 times its mid-range estimate provided by Sotheby’s New York.”

This acquisition brought Armitage’s work into one of the most prestigious museum collections in the world. Shortly afterwards, spotlights around the world, both institutional and market, began to focus on his work. In 2019, his paintings and drawings caused a sensation at the 58th Venice Biennale (May you live in interesting times) and at the MoMA in New York (Projects 110: Michael Armitage).

Meanwhile, his canvas The Conservationists (2015) reached $1.52 million at auction, 25 times its mid-range estimate provided by Sotheby’s New York. The Conservationists was part of the White Cube exhibition in 2016 and was purchased by a major New York collector at the time. Three years later, the work reached the same price as White nets by Yayoi KUSAMA (one of the 30 top-rated artists in the world!) sold the same day at Sotheby’s.
The Conservationists arrived on the auction podium just after the exhibitions in Venice and New York had substantially bolstered the artist’s international standing, and, above all, in a period when the acquisition of works by African artists had become one of the top priorities for museums and collectors in the United States and elsewhere.

A market under demand pressure

The auction market moves quickly, in fact, increasingly quickly, whereas galleries try to control the price evolutions of their protegés with a view to making them constant and lasting. Galleries are generally wary of fads that propel young artists to higher price points than those obtained by better-known Contemporary artists. There is always a danger that the market will run out of steam, or move on to some other fad, causing the prices to tumble. But when there is institutional support… when artists are exhibited and acquired by museums, the base is more solid and collectors are reassured.

“Selected among the 10 artists in Whitechapel Gallery’s “Painting in the new millennium” exhibition (2020).”

Even if the prices of Michael Armitage’s works literally soared overnight, there may yet be more surprises in the pipeline as he has very solid support. Selected among the 10 artists in Whitechapel Gallery’s “Painting in the new millennium” exhibition (2020), Armitage was shown at the Taiwan Biennale and at the Haus der Kunst in Munich earlier this year.

As it moves around the world, his work is gaining international notoriety and seducing new potential buyers. It would therefore be surprising to see his prices deflate over the coming months as long as the principle of auction scarcity is maintained. The fewer the works, the higher the bids will be. The rule of a ‘reasonable’ supply versus a ‘pressing’ demand should maintain (or drive) the prices, currently in 7 digits, of this young thirty-something artist.