Is it a jumper, is it an artwork, is it social activism?
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There are several ingredients that lead to an exceptional collaboration: a brilliant artist, a fresh designer and a worthwhile cause are high on the list. For the second edition of ArtColLab, an initiative that pairs artists and designers to create limited-edition pieces with all profits supporting young creative talent, we are graciously treated to all three.
For this year’s collection, launching on Yoox.com on 22 October, Kenyan-born, London-based artist Michael Armitage is collaborating with Haitian-Italian fashion designer Stella Jean on two wool sweaters. Samburu (£850) is based on an Armitage artwork examining self-exoticism and the effects of tourism in Kenya, while Kiziwani (£850) is an original study of an indigenous forest.
Each artwork explores ongoing preoccupations in Armitage’s practice around environmental and political worlds in Kenya, and here they speak to Jean’s activism in sustainable development. “Michael’s work and personal story is about multiculturalism, which is very close to my story and point of view,” Jean says of their collaboration. “It’s perfect”. Armitage is equally effusive about their partnering. “Having work that is genuinely [multicultural] is something I appreciate in Stella,” he says. “It’s something that I want to be clear with in my own work.”
Armitage had his first solo exhibition at White Cube in 2015, and has since shown work at MoMA and the Venice Biennale. His lush and sometimes haunting oil paintings are sought after in the art world, with one work, The Conservationists, recently selling at Sotheby’s in New York for over $1.5m (more than 20 times the upper estimate).
Jean’s career trajectory has also been dazzling. Giorgio Armani personally selected her to show at his 550-seat Teatro show space after her debut collection, and her work has been exhibited at the V&A Museum. She is also the first – and only – black person to have been appointed to the Italian Fashion Council.
For Olga Re Rebaudengo, co-founder of ArtColLab, it was an obvious pairing of talent: “The way they both use their stories and culture in their art is very unique and that’s why we put them together,” she explains.
Both Jean and Armitage have their own charitable initiatives: Jean concentrates on the power of fashion to provide opportunity for equitable work, while Armitage focuses on the support of young artists. Half of the proceeds from this collaboration will go towards funding the work and education of artists at Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute, a non-profit visual-arts space established earlier this year by Armitage. “We were in this cultural amnesia where, as an artist studying, there was nowhere to go and learn about your own context,” he says, describing the origins of the institute.
Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo is the other beneficiary of the sweater collaboration. Founder Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo (also co-founder of ArtColLab) emphasises the importance of art as a way of learning. “We work a lot with kids and education programmes,” she says of the foundation, started in 1995.
“The life behind the sweater itself is a very important and necessary one,” Armitage emphasises. He’s right, but that’s not to say that the jumper isn’t meaningful too. “It’s something precious,” Jean says. “It’s an artwork – and I really hope people will take care of it”.