Visual Art

Denzil Forrester’s Remarkable Reggae Paintings At ICA Miami

Written By Douglas Markowitz
April 17, 2023 at 7:51 AM

Denzil Forrester, “Three Wicked Crocs,” (1982), oil on canvas, is one of the works in “Denzil Forrester: We Culture,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, through Sept. 24. (Photo courtesy of Mark Blower)

Denzil Forrester, wearing a floral shirt and Bermuda shorts, looks like any other tourist at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA Miami). In fact, he is in Florida on vacation, but it is a working vacation as the British-Grenadian artist has a show that’s now open in Miami’s Design District.

“We Culture” is Forrester’s first museum show in North America, and the 20 paintings and a dozen or so preparatory drawings on display bring a modern artist’s perspective to a unique setting, the dub reggae clubs of London in the late 1970s and ‘80s.

Denzil Forrester, “Stryker,” (1985), oil on canvas, Diptych, overall. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery. At right, “Carnival Dub, (1984), oil on canvas, Diptych, overall. Installation view of “Denzil Forrester: We Culture,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art,  Miami. Through Sept. 24. (Photo courtesy of Zachary Balber)

Now based in rural, beachy Cornwall in the west of England, the 66-year-old artist spent his formative years in London, a far cry from sunny Miami or his birthplace in the West Indies. As an art student in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he had investigated abstract expressionism and the canonical European modernists – Matisse, Picasso – as well as old masters like El Greco, but where he truly found inspiration, like many in his generation of West Indian immigrants, was the reggae clubs that were opening around London.

“They were a bit lost, really, because most of these people came from the country, believe it or not, where there’s hardly any electricity, you used to get water from the tap on the street,” he recalls. “They ended up in a bloody big city, quite a lonely experience really. But back in the home country where they came from, they had Carnival, or they had all the local parties, so when they came to  . . . London, it was like nothing. So having those venues for them to go to on the weekends, it was like heaven!”

Denzil Forrester at ICA, Miami. (Photo courtesy of Chris Carter)

Reggae, especially the dark, bass-heavy subgenre of dub, was popular in London, and had begun moving from house parties into small venues like Phebes, a grand old Victorian pub just a stone’s throw from where Forrester was living in Stoke Newington. Forrester began hanging out behind the bar at the clubs and would spend entire nights drawing the scenes, making gestural sketches, and waiting for the right moment to capture the energy of the crowds dancing to artists like Gregory Isaacs, King Tubby, and Lee “Scratch” Perry.

“It’s difficult to explain but there actually is an atmosphere in those clubs you never would get in a normal nightclub,” he recalls. “Certain records the room would just light up, and then you have to go mad on the paper, trying to get that energy down on the paper. Go with the crowd.”

Forrester made about 50 sketches in the clubs in a week, and only 10 to 15 felt truly exceptional. He would use the sketches in the studio to create his paintings: vivid, energetic scenes of reggae dancehalls and the characters within – Rastafarian DJs and steppers dressed to the nines – rendered in deep hues, in reds, oranges, purples, and blacks, and in blocky, almost geometric compositions that render the dancers in a blur of shapes and colors. Curator Gene Moreno, ICA Miami’s director of the Knight Foundation Art + Research Center, structures the show in rough chronological order, going from the darkness of London to the brighter, almost tropical paintings Forrester produced while on scholarship in Rome from 1983 to 1985.

Denzil Forrester, “Blue Tent,” (1984), oil on canvas, Diptych, overall, and “Wolf Singer,” (1984), Diptych, overall. Installation view of “Denzil Forrester: We Culture,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Through Sept. 24. (Photo courtesy of Zachary Balber)

“Two things happen, the light and the colors of Rome influence him, but he also starts thinking of Carnival when he was a little boy in Grenada,” says Moreno. “Formally, they’re very deliberate in the way he sets the elements, so they work as paintings, not just registration of a scene.”

According to Moreno, the decision to show Forrester’s work comes from the ICA’s continued investigation into an “expanded Caribbean,” exploring artists from diasporic communities that resulted from decolonization. He cites the museum’s recent exhibition of Haitian artist Herve Telemaque, who lived for many years in New York and Paris.

“It’s Caribbean, but it’s not either. It’s almost like these external elements that get grafted into some mainstream cultures, and something new sprouts. I’m interested in thinking about that,” says Moreno.

Dub reggae could be seen as one of these cultural seeds. The genre’s impact on British music and culture at large is truly massive, influencing genres from jungle to dubstep, and even punk and post-punk. The production and compositional techniques of dub musicians like Dennis Bovell and Jah Shaka can be heard in everything from Bauhaus to Burial.

Denzil Forrester, “The Cave,” (1978), oil on canvas, is included in the exhibition “Denzil Forrester: We Culture” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Through Sept. 24. (Photo courtesy of Mark Blower)

In addition to the music, however, Forrester documented another aspect of Black British experience, which will undoubtedly resonate with Americans: the hunting and unlawful killing of Black people by police. Several of the artist’s works in “We Culture,” which are the darkest color wise and the bleakest thematically, depict bodies being dragged away by black-suited constables in pointed hats. Another work deals specifically with the death of Winston Rose, a former neighbor of Forrester’s killed while in custody. Upon hearing the news, the artist decided to change his art school thesis topic from Picasso to Rose’s death, even attending the court inquest into the case.

“When you’re writing the thesis and you hear someone you knew got killed, the whole thing was so horrible and disgusting, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I thought, alright, I’ll just do a painting then.”

Denzil Forrester, “Funeral of Winston Rose” (1981), oil on canvas, is included in the exhibition “Denzil Forrester: We Culture,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Through Sept. 24. (Photo courtesy of Mark Blower)

Forrester took a painting he had done of a nightclub scene with Jah Shaka and painted over portions, removing the DJ and adding Rose, whose body lies in a coffin. In hindsight, the work symbolizes the dual nature of being Black in Britain at the time, the immense joy experienced in the dance hall combined with the shocking brutality experienced as unwelcome guests of former colonial masters.

The artist recalls his own encounters with police on the prowl. “It happened to me a lot, I’d be coming from the nightclub at 5 o’clock in the morning, you’ve got your drawings, plastic bag with pastels and everything, and the next thing you know there’s a car cruising behind you, slowly. And you look . . . it’s the police.”

WHAT: “Denzil Forrester: We Culture”

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Closed Monday through Tuesday. Through Sept. 24.

WHERE:  ICA Miami, 61 NE 41st St., Miami

COST:  Free

INFORMATION: 305-901-5272 or is a nonprofit source of theater, dance, visual arts, music and performing arts news. 

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