Denzil Forrester: Some Considerations

Although Denzil Forrester became visible as a practising artist in the early 1980s, having graduated from the Royal College of Art painting department in 1983, his highly distinctive artwork has rarely been closely associated with a number of Black artists who similarly emerged into visibility during the same period of time. In mentioning this, I seek to reference the fortuitousness of whatever factors inform his general, frequently uninterrupted disassociation from other bodies of Black British artists. Because while a number of Black artists who emerged in the early 1980s seem destined to be forevermore associated with, or barricaded within, one particular moment in time – with all the problematic curatorial and art historical consequences that flow from that – over the course of three and a half decades Forrester has been able to maintain and develop his practice, leading to a wonderful and clearly discernible flourishing of his abilities as a painter, without being hemmed in by the art world’s oftentimes clumsy considerations of race.

It is perhaps the pronounced ways in which Forrester has stayed true to the act of painting that has led to him producing some of the most arresting, ambitious and distinctive painting by an artist of his generation. Historically, Forrester has taken as his subject the twin themes of reggae/dub dance hall and the music, sights, sounds, and movement of carnival. At times, his work has touched on other themes, such as the death in police custody of Winston Rose, an acquaintance of Forrester when both were young men. His canvasses – on occasion large, oversize affairs – range from dark, brooding and sometimes menacing works, through to bright, liberated paintings resonating with vibrant colours. Sometimes, the scenes he depicts are located in dark, almost tomb-like or nocturnal environments. On other occasions Forrester takes the focus of his attention to the streets, allowing the sun and copious amounts of light into his paintings, much like carnival itself. In the words of art critic John Russell Taylor: ‘The something that Forrester’s paintings are about is distinctive and unmistakable. From the time when he first encountered the clubs, their dancing and their dub music, they have provided the basic scene for his large paintings.’...

While the parental generation of young immigrants in some respects never really stopped being Bajan, Grenadian, Guyanese, Jamaican, Trinidadian, and so on, it fell to their children – second-generation Caribbean youth – to fashion a slew of new identities, and it is among the spaces within which these new identities were formed that Forrester’s practice has germinated and thrived. Chief among the new Caribbean-derived identities was a new Black [British] identity which existed in marked contrast to the West Indian designation of older Caribbean migrants and which pretty much rendered as irrelevant the delineation of identity along the lines of the specific and individual countries from which their parents came. As noted by Ernest Cashmore, in his study of Rastafari in Britain: ‘Young West Indians saw themselves not as fractionated and culturally diverse but as one people, sharing similarities of backgrounds, of present circumstances and, more importantly, of future.’ The major central factor and component in this new Black identity was music, specifically reggae. And it was the Jamaican-ness of reggae and its profound influence on Forrester’s demographic that created so many of the cultural influences visible within Forrester’s paintings.

With a pronounced Pan-Caribbeanness – which resisted distinction among young Black Britons on the basis of country of background – informing a new Black identity, and with reggae music as its central component, a new, Black British cultural identity among Forrester’s demographic was in the making. Inevitably, distinct articulations of Jamaican elements dominated this youthful cultural expression, and by the late 1970s reggae music, and its dub variant, joined Jamaican speech patterns as the dominant signifiers of Black British countercultural expression. This in turn led to a sense of Blackness among Black British youth that was particularly strong, sophisticated, and fit for purpose, even as it contrasted with their parents’ generation, who were said to lack ‘a single cohesive culture which could bind them together’. In encountering Forrester’s visual articulations of reggae and dub-related investigations, we see what were invaluable monuments to a seismic moment in British countercultural history at the time of their making. Of course, this value remains in Forrester’s paintings, indeed, with the ongoing evolution of Black Britain, his paintings from the mid-1980s become ever-more important articulations...

The above extracts are from an essay by Eddie Chambers, for Denzil Forrester: A Survey, published on the occasion of the artist's exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, 25 April - 25 May 2019

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