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This Londoner painted the underground nightlife of ’80s Hackney

Written by
Layla Haidrani

Denzil Forrester lived and painted in Hackney for 49 years, capturing the rhythms of its underground nightclubs – and the impact on the area of police brutality…

I arrived in London from Grenada in 1967 when I was eleven-and-a-half. It was like being thrown in the deep end. I had to wait about six months before I could go to school, so I stayed at home with my mum helping her make bags in a basement in Stoke Newington. At school, there were only a few other boys from the West Indies. Being in a class full of people who didn’t look like me took about a year to get used to.

After school, I got on to the Central School of Art and Design foundation course. It was one of the most memorable times in my life. I lived in a squat on Clissold Road in Stoke Newington. I was one of the first generation of black art students and I had great support from my tutors. This experience was made possible by a full government grant – something that no longer exists.

Music and dance were, and still are, my main source of inspiration. And I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time: Hackney in the ’80s. I had access to all the major dub ‘blues’ (underground parties) and nightclubs: Phebes, All Nations and Four Aces. For the first time, I was in a big space with dub reggae playing at full volume. It was a piece of heaven on earth.

Denzil Forrester

I began to bring my sketchbook, A1 paper and drawing equipment. The clubs were dark and smoky, but I didn’t care what the people looked like; I just wanted to draw movement, action and expression. I was interested in the energy of the crowd, particular dance movements and what the clubbers wore. In these clubs, city life is recreated in essence: sounds, lights, police sirens, bodies pushing and swaying in a smoke-filled room. Music has a way of uniting communities. Unfortunately, most of these places have disappeared. Four Aces is now luxury flats.

Sometimes the atmosphere was momentarily broken by another group of people, dressed in blue. During my MA course at the Royal College of Art in 1981, I found out that a family friend, Winston Rose, had been killed in police custody. It was a real shock to me, as I knew him so well. I decided to write about the circumstances of his death for my thesis, and attended the inquest. I was so troubled by details of his death, while they were transporting him to a psychiatric hospital, that I began to include him in my paintings. In the nightclub scenes, I would portray Winston as a DJ – ‘Blue Jay’ – surrounded by police.

As an artist, if you’re black, you are not viewed first and foremost as simply an artist. Black men are still portrayed in a negative way, beginning at school. The relationship between the police and the public hasn’t changed that much either. There may be less killing of young men in police custody, but it still happens. Young people are vulnerable because there are no more community centres – no space they can call their own.

Even so, I remain optimistic. Art gives us empathy and understanding for each other, and hope to carry on when all is taken away from us. Even though I’ve now settled in Cornwall, I’m glad I immortalised the ’80s dub scene in London. The paintings mean a lot to me because I captured the energy of a time and space that simply doesn’t exist any more.

Denzil Forrester: From Trench Town to Porthtowan’ is at Jackson Foundation in Cornwall until June 23. 

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