Denzil Forrester’s first major U.S. exhibition opens at Kemper Museum

"Duppy Conqueror" explores four themes and spans three decades of Forrester’s work.
Denzil Forrester stands in front of some of his paintings in his exhibition "Denzil Forrester: Duppy Conquerer."

Denzil Forrester at the opening of his exhibition “Duppy Conquerer.”// Contributed by the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

In his first major U.S. exhibition, Denzil Forrester shares three decades of his work and transports you to the 1980s and 1990s underground London dub scene.

The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition is split into four themes: “Dub,” “Homenow,” “Sound Systems,” and “Brixton Blues.”

Forrester bases each piece on an experience or memory that is integral to who he is.

People view Denzil Forrester's "We Itchin."

“We Itchin” // Painting by Denzil Forrester

Forrester was born in Grenada in 1956, but his family relocated to London when he was 11. The first section you walk through in the exhibition, “Dub,” depicts scenes of various basement clubs that he visited in London.

In each painting, 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 draws the club scene with pastels or charcoal while in the club. He often draws at least 12 sketches in a night.

He tries to stand by the DJ and watch as a new record is put on. For the length of a song, he vigorously sketches. Each drawing takes about five minutes to finish, but he may wait years till he is in the “right place” to transfer the scene to canvas.

Around the corner, the next section, “Homenow,” steps away from the club scene and transports you to specific moments in Forrester’s life. He tells the story of each painting as if he is remembering every brush stroke he did to recreate the scene.

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“Reading with Ma Pets”// Painting by Denzil Forrester

One painting, “Reading with Ma Pets,” shows him as a child reading to his old school teacher in Grenada, his suitcase to move to London is packed at her feet, and his mother’s old house sits in the background.

In these personal scenes, he features the faces of people that were important to him throughout his life. In his club scenes, he also includes this feeling of familiarity by using the faces of people he’s met in multiple scenes.

The next section of the exhibition is named “Sound Systems.” These pieces were painted after he received his B.A. in fine art from the Central School of Art London in 1979 and his M.A. in fine art from the Royal College of Art in 1983.

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“Study for Ma Pets”// Sketch by Denzil Forrester

They take you, once again, to the club scenes in London.

“We Itchin” is an oil painting Forrester finished in 2021; the sketch was completed in 2020. You can feel the sway of the dance floor through the crisscrossing lines. The people almost meld together in the blue hues of the underground club.

“When the audience goes crazy, you have to go crazy with them,” Forrester says when describing how he captures the unique atmosphere of each club.

“Brixton Blue” is the final section of the exhibit. These paintings show how the lives of Black British people are impacted by racism and police brutality. The works set people in club scenes where the “atmosphere was momentarily broken by another group of people, dressed only in blue,” Forrester says in a description of this section.

One painting, in particular, holds a great deal of importance to Forrester because he painted it after his friend Winston Rose died in police custody in 1981.

The painting “Brixton Blue” shows two police officers taking a Black man down a street that is transformed into a dance club.

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“Brixton Blue”// Painting by Denzil Forrester

A man lighting a cigarette near a record player, a couple embracing, and a drug dealer named “the businessman” are in the background. Forrester said most people who look at the painting pay attention to the three men in the foreground, but they need to pay attention to what is behind them.

Each of Forrester’s paintings makes you feel as if you lived the experience with him. You can feel the crowd, the music, and the emotion in each piece.

If you are interested in learning more about Denzil Forrester, the exhibition includes a “Learning Gallery,” created in collaboration with the Kemper Teen Arts Council and UMKC, where you can read narratives about him and his work and try a range of interactive activities for all ages.

View “Denzil Forrester: Duppy Conqueror” at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art from Jan. 26 – May 7. Admission and parking are always free for the museum. 

After viewing the exhibition, you can participate in multiple public programs that celebrate the exhibition, including a collaboration with Silent KC Feb. 16, a “Rhythm of the Trivia Night” March 9, and a curator-led tour March 15.

Categories: Art