Michael Armitage's The Flaying of Marsyas is the centrepiece of his exhibition in South London. Lilias Wigan examines it in detail.

Michael Armitage, The Flaying of Marsyas, 2017. © Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby). Courtesy of the Artist and White Cube.

Michael Armitage, The Flaying of Marsyas, 2017. © Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby). Courtesy of the Artist and White Cube.

Born in 1984 and raised in Kenya, Michael Armitage divides his time between East Africa and London, where he studied at the Slade and the Royal Academy Schools. Aptly titled ‘The Chapel’, his solo exhibition at the South London Gallery (open until 23 February 2018) demands cavernous contemplation.

The show’s ‘altarpiece’ painting, The Flaying of Marsyas (2017), draws on Greek Mythology. More directly, it references Titian’s sixteenth century composition of the western narrative, in which the satyr Marysas is skinned alive while hanging from a tree, having foolishly challenged the Apollo to a musical contest. Here, the victim Marsyas is hoisted horizontally to a branch — like a sacrificial offering. His head lurches back in agony.

The source material in this exhibition is diverse, spreading into popular culture, art history, news channels and social inequality, as well as cultural and political conflict. Armitage works on multiple canvases at once, often over the course of a couple of years. His canvas is terrestrial and rooted in ‘African’ imagery.

In each of these paintings, he ditches the conventional canvas and uses dried bark from the Ugandan lubugo tree; stretched over the frame, it forms a landscape of natural punctures and rips.

“This is a universal violence, for which the responsibility is global. Mankind is inexhaustibly capable of inflicting unjust pain.”

This terrain has a certain resistance to the earthy tones of his paint. Sections have been crudely sewn back together, brutally suggestive of a surgeon stitching flesh. The mysterious central figure of the flayer came from a character in Armitage’s own documentary of the bark-skinning process (its traditional purpose is for burial shrouds and ceremonial dress). There are forces of life and death at play.

Armitage’s colour palette is undeniably enchanting and the complexity of his composition demands scrutiny. A thinly applied, luminescent ground-colour glows from the victim’s raw flesh; distinctive patterned clothing distracts our eye; the dripping blood is somehow sensuous. A dog seductively laps a pool of blood, while another eagerly anticipates the falling skin.

But our gaze is interrupted by violence and complication. A woman to the right squats confrontationally; she reminds us of a prostitute in Picasso’s controversial Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, whose face was modelled directly on an African mask. By interweaving cross-continent references, Armitage forms his own contemporary, globalised and hybrid scene. He may flaunt imagery of an ‘African violence’, but by inserting it into this European narrative, he points the finger back at the western world. This is a universal violence, for which the responsibility is global. Mankind is inexhaustibly capable of inflicting unjust pain.

Michael Armitage’s solo exhibition, ‘The Chapel’, is at the South London Gallery until 23 February 2018. Admission is free. Additionally, The National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh has just acquired (via donation) the first work of Armitage in a UK institution. It is currently on show in The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s exhibition.