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1983 Exploring Dub Charge

A figurative painter who trained from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, Denzil Forrester has exhibited widely from the 1980s onwards, including at the Royal Academy.1 For the 1983 Academy Summer Exhibition, he displayed a large oil painting titled Dub Charge and this painting was one of the pieces of art featured in that year’s Royal Academy Illustrated catalogue (Fig. 1).2 Forrester was born in Grenada, a tri-island state in the Caribbean Windward Islands, in 1956 and emigrated to Britain as a child in 1967. He trained at the Central School of Art and Design (1975–1979) and at the Royal College of Art (1981–1983), where he completed an MA in Fine Art (painting). In 1983, the same year Dub Charge was displayed at the Academy, he was awarded a Rome Scholarship, which he completed in 1985. Thereafter, he was awarded a Harkness Fellowship to New York, which he carried out from 1986 to 1988. Forrester was the Director of Visual Art at the Islington Arts Factory for many years and for the last few decades until 2016 lectured in painting and drawing at Morley College.3

Explore the 1983 catalogue

Dub Charge is an example of Forrester’s artistic practice, which began early in his career, of visually representing Dub sound-system culture and nightlife. In the process, as Eddie Chambers has shown, Forrester documented and archived the history of the Black British sound-system culture of the blues club and party. Dub developed in Kingston, Jamaica from the sound-system music and culture established by the mid-twentieth century. Caribbean, particularly Jamaican, Dub artists in Britain of the “Windrush generation” and later immigrations, as well as the second-generation, sustained and preserved their diasporic links with Jamaican Dub culture and practice while developing a significant British sound-system culture.

During the period that Denzil Forrester studied at the Royal College of Art, he attended Dub sound-system nights and started to draw at the back of the parties and clubs. He recalled, “the main DJ and crowd that excited me was Jah Shaka. Friday & Saturday I attended the clubs”. He created many drawings when the crowd were dancing and has explained that: “each drawing will take the length of a record, 3/4 minutes.”4 Paul Sullivan states, “the most distinctive dub sound of the era was undeniably Jah Shaka who, along with Lloyd Coxsone, was one of the first to play dub in London in the early 1970s.”5 Works such as Dub Charge provide a unique visual representation of the world, atmosphere, and sounds of the blues party. Dub Charge highlights the energy and focus of the crowd on the selector and the music being played. In creating these pieces in real time within the walls of the party, Forrester and his work became an intrinsic component of these Dub parties. Reflecting on his style and art practice, Forrester has stated that: “gesture drawings are not concerned with what the subject looks like or is—instead, the aim is to draw the action, movement and expression of what the subject is doing.”6

Many of Forrester’s Dub, blues party, and club pieces were created in 1983, the last year of his Royal College of Art training and the year he submitted the piece to the Academy. Forrester reflected on this year in his early career, specifically on his memories of the Academy Summer Exhibition, stating:

1983 was a brilliant year for me: I was included in the RA Summer Show with Dub Charge, my MA show was on at the Royal College and I was awarded the British Fellowship in Rome for 2 years. I remember going to the private view of the Summer Show and really enjoyed meeting all the other artists and seeing the work. It’s always an exciting moment to see your work amongst your contemporaries, particularly your tutors.7

Dub Charge was in fact the third piece Forrester exhibited at the Academy Summer Exhibitions. He first exhibited at the Academy show in 1982 with two pieces: Winston Rose and Winston Rose 2 (Fig. 2). These powerful paintings reflected on his personal experiences of police racism and brutality as a young Black man in 1980s Britain, portraying his friend Winston Rose, who was killed in a police van in 1981.

Forrester was one of many Black and Asian British artists establishing careers in the 1970s and 1980s art world. Artists of African, Caribbean, and Asian heritage—both first and second generation—curated and exhibited work on a range of subjects, exploring and representing themes concerning identity, gender, sexuality, migration, race, and racism.8 Forrester’s work evinces several significant aspects of Black 1980s working-class London life from the development of Black British music and carnival, the importance of spirituality in Black British music and nightlife, to the experiences of racism and police brutality and Black British cultures of resistance to racism. Eddie Chambers has illuminated Forrester’s importance to documenting Black Britain, writing that: “perhaps one of the most important features of Forrester’s work was the way in which, inadvertently perhaps, it created a series of historical documents related to the making of Black Britain.”9

Forrester’s work has more recently been remembered and brought to the fore in the 2015 No Colour Bar exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery, in Eddie Chambers’ 2015 monograph Black Artists in British Art, as well as in a 2016 exhibition of Forrester’s work curated by Peter Doig and Matthew Higgs at White Columns in New York, which included Dub Charge among the works shown. After debuting with Dub Charge at the Summer Exhibition in 1983, Forrester also exhibited at subsequent summer shows in 1987, 1988, 1995, and 2000, often to significant critical success: in 1987, he won the Exhibition’s Korn Ferry International Award and in 2000 he was awarded its Scottish Gallery Diana King Prize.10

  1. Information gleaned from Denzil Forrester’s CV, sent to author in email from Denzil Forrester, March 2018.↩︎

  2. The Royal Academy Illustrated, 1983: A Souvenir of the 215th Summer Exhibition (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1983), 30.↩︎

  3. Information gleaned from Denzil Forrester’s CV, sent to author in email from Denzil Forrester, March 2018.↩︎

  4. Author’s email conversation with Denzil Forrester, March 2018.↩︎

  5. Paul Sullivan, Remixology: Tracing the Dub Diaspora (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), 64.↩︎

  6. Chris Cobb, “A Painter Who Captured London’s 1980s Reggae Scene”, Hyperallergic, 16 December 2016,↩︎

  7. Author’s email conversation with Denzil Forrester, March 2018.↩︎

  8. Forrester exhibited with various other artists of the 1980s Black British art movement—in exhibitions exploring themes including migration and race. In August 1986, his work was included in the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s exhibition From Two Worlds, curated by Nicholas Serota and Gavin Jantjes, alongside artists including Lubaina Himid, Sonia Boyce, Shafique Uddin, Tam Joseph, Sokari Douglas Camp, and Zarina Bhimji. A decade later, his work was included in the 1997 three-venue New York exhibition Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966–1996, curated by Mora J. Beauchamp-Byrd of the Caribbean Cultural Center in Manhattan, alongside fifty other artists including Vanley Burke, Sonia Boyce, Roshini Kempadoo, Ajamu, Rita Keegan, Sutapa Biswas, and Claudette Johnson. See Deanna Petherbridge, “Bold Conflict of Images from Two Worlds”, The Financial Times, 7 August 1986; and Holland Cotter, “This Realm of Newcomers, This England”, The New York Times, 24 October 1997.↩︎

  9. Eddie Chambers, Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015), 81.↩︎

  10. Information gleaned from Denzil Forrester’s CV, sent to author in email from Denzil Forrester, March 2018.↩︎

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Explore the 1983 catalogue