In his first major US exhibition, Denzil Forrester shares three decades of his work and takes you inside London’s underground dub scene in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art The exhibition is divided into four themes: ‘Dub’, ‘Homenow’, ‘Sound Systems’ and ‘Brixton Blues’.
Forrester bases each piece on an experience or memory that is an integral part of who he is.
Forrester was born in Grenada in 1956, but his family moved to London when he was 11 years old. The first section you go through in the exhibition, ‘Dub’, depicts scenes from various basement clubs he frequents in London.
In every picture you can feel the movement of the dancers and almost hear the dub or disco music pounding in everyone’s ears. To capture the moment on canvas, Forrester first paints the club scene in pastels or charcoal while in the club. He often draws at least 12 sketches in one night.
He tries to stand next to the DJ and watch them play a new record. For the length of a song, he vigorously sketches. Each drawing takes about five minutes to complete, but he can wait years until he is in the “right place” to transfer the scene to canvas.
Around the corner, the next section, “Homenow,” moves away from the club scene and takes you into specific moments in Forrester’s life. He tells the story of each painting, as if he remembers every brushstroke he made to recreate the scene.
One painting, “Reading with Ma Pets,” shows him as a child reading to his old teacher in Grenada, his suitcase to move to New York packed at her feet, his mother’s old house sitting in the background .
In these personal scenes, he presents the faces of people who have been important to him throughout his life. In his club scenes, he also incorporates this sense of familiarity by using the faces of people he has met in multiple scenes.
The next section of the exhibition is called “Sound Systems”. These works were painted after he obtained a BA from the Central School of Art London in 1979 and an MA from the Royal College of Art in 1983.
They take you back to the London club scene.
“We Itchin” is an oil painting completed by Forrester in 2021; the sketch was completed in 2020. You can feel the swaying of the dance floor through the intersecting lines. People almost blend into the blue hues of the underground club.
“When the crowd goes crazy, you have to go crazy with them,” Forrester says when describing how he captures each club’s unique atmosphere.
“Brixton Blue” is the last part of the exhibition. These paintings show how the lives of black Britons have been affected by racism and police brutality. You work put people in club scenes where “the atmosphere was instantly disrupted by another group of people dressed only in blue,” says Forrester in the section’s description.
One painting in particular has great meaning to Forrester because he painted it after his friend Winston Rose died in police custody in 1981.
The painting “Three Wicked Men” shows two policemen leading a black man down a street turned into a dance club.
In the background are a man lighting a cigarette next to a record player, a couple embracing and a drug dealer named “the businessman”. Forrester said most people who look at the painting assume the three wicked men are the men in the foreground, but “it’s not as simple as people think.”
Each of Forrester’s paintings makes you feel like you’ve lived the experience with him. You can feel the crowd, the music and the emotion in every piece.
If you’re interested in learning more about Denzil Forrester, the exhibit includes a “Learning Gallery,” created in collaboration with the Kemper Teen Arts Council and UMKC, where you can read stories about him and his work and try a range of interactive activities for all ages.
Check out Denzil Forrester: Duppy Conqueror at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art from January 26 to May 7. Admission and parking are always free for the museum.
After viewing the exhibit, you can participate in numerous public programs that celebrate the exhibit, including a collaboration with Silent KC February 16, a “Rhythm of Trivia Night” March 9 and a a tour led by a curator March 15.