You can almost hear Denzil Forrester’s paintings. The Grenada-born British artist has been filling his canvases with images of London’s sweat-drenched reggae and dub dancehalls for decades, and now in his 60s, his work is still pulsating with the rhythm and movement of the clubs.
In his world of purples and pinks, speaker stacks are monolithic totems, limbs are blurs of movement. One work here shows his family sewing bags, a memory from when they first moved to Hackney; a speaker hangs in the background, sound as essential as an overhead light or cool air from a fan. Dreamy, foggy memories pervade these works, with visions of humid porches and undulating Caribbean hills in among the images of dancehalls and Black London partiers. Forrester’s no longer just painting the here and now of his London culture, but letting his past and childhood seep into the visual mix, meshing together into a joyous lilac and mauve portrait of his life.
I don’t think they’re all great paintings, but they’re lovely, simplistic, super bold things, with Forrester letting his totally unique aesthetic just go wherever it wants.
But one work here strips away the music and memories, leaving only the harsh brutality of real life for Black people in London. ‘Q’ shows a black girl, stripped almost naked, her hands clasped awkwardly together, a jacket thrown carelessly over her shoulders, barely concealing her body. Her clothes and phone lie on the floor. Around her stand three police offices, ominous presences threateningly brandishing their phallic batons. It’s a vile, aggressive, shocking image based on the case of ‘Child Q’, a 15 year old Black girl who was illegally strip-searched by police in 2020. There are still speakers in the background here, but these ones are silent. The image is still bathed in purple and pink, but those colours aren’t festive and alive anymore; now they feel like bruises and blood. This is an angry, sad, heartbroken painting.
Forrester paints Black life in London: it’s full of joy and music, but sadly, it can still be full of pain too.