A strange hybrid between the sprawling tentacles of a vivid red octopus and the branches of a palm tree dominate Michael Armitage’s painting ‘The Octopus’s Veil’. Inspired by memories of his time spent on the East Coast of Kenya, his work visually captures a distinctive sound he heard every morning – fishermen purifying octopus by beating them to remove their ink.
Mesmerised by the rhythmic sound and the ruthless acts of the fishermen, Armitage invents a fantastical scene of an octopus whose elongated tentacles emerging from the sea are disguised as the branches of the doum palm tree. Hidden behind the tree, the octopus waits to entrap the approaching fishing boat and exact its revenge. Often featured in his paintings, the tree is a motif that Armitage closely associates with Kenya, a form that anchors his work to the emotive resonance of home.
Armitage’s signature medium is oil on Lubugo bark cloth, a material harvested and prepared from trees in Uganda that is used to make a fabric for ceremonial garments. Its natural textures literally interweave with Armitage’s depictions of contemporary life, personal memories and allusions to regional mythology and symbolism.
By drawing upon a complex historical dialectic between Western and non-Western cultural traditions and merging formal European art historical styles with East African subjects and materials, Armitage’s work challenges the tired exoticisation of the ‘other’. ‘The Octopus’s Veil’ brings an additional cultural reference through the artist’s handling of the transformation between tentacles and tree, a stylistic allusion to the historical tradition of Japanese 'Ukiyo-e' woodblock prints.
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