Race, powerful conversations, and a night out

2 Mins read

Denzil Forrester’s artwork is a modern interpretation of belonging which explores themes of race, ethics, and community via the inside of a London club.

I am surrounded by liquid people, so sweaty they slip off of one another like sunscreen on a wet body. There are limbs everywhere swaying in unison and I feel like a cog in a seamless, undulating machine.

We all contribute to the mass as it waxes and wanes with each new song pumped from the gods of music which control us all. I am overstimulated, but totally calm. 

As I tear my eyes away, I find myself wishing all my nights out were like the one I am losing myself in, depicted by Denzil Forrester in his painting, Itchin and Scratchin (2019).

I am intoxicated by the mass of swirling blue and purple, the hues travelling on the wave of music pumping from the speakers which stand above the crowd, begging to be worshipped.

Dezel Forrester’s Itchin’ and Scratching’ [Jess Watts]

But a closer look at the painting, and a dive into Forrester’s background, reveals another palette entirely – one that illustrates not only a standard night out in London, but also race, ethics, and the power of music itself.

The National Portrait Gallery is currently showcasing some of Forrester’s work in its exhibition The Time is Always Now exhibition.

The information card beside Itchin and Scratchin notes that Forrester “combines his childhood memories of Caribbean carnivals with the intoxicating atmosphere of the London dub clubs he frequented in the early 1980s.”

This sense of atmosphere is immediately palpable when observing the piece, and, standing at over two metres, the painting engulfs the viewer in its haze of entertainment.

The only two colours used are blue and purple, different hues and tones highlight areas of the abstract mass of ‘people’ gathered on the dancefloor. The colours evoke a dichotomy of emotions: they are both evocative of serenity and peace, but also strobe together and flash “like the imminent arrival of police vehicles.”

This instils an uneasy undertone in the serenity of the piece. There is an omnipresent buzz of energy in Denzil Forrester’s work, perhaps stemming from the uplifting colour palette and further stimulated by the feeling of impending authorities. This is especially prevalent when one acknowledges the historical violence that police have exhibited towards Black communities.

The piece’s direction calls the viewer’s eye to the top third, giving the speakers a god-like presence, towering over the adoring disciples. The impression is one of awe and fantasy, where music holds all the power.

Despite the unease created by the indistinguishable mass of people who are so lost in the music that individuals have been reduced to intangible shapes, there is a feeling of safety in numbers which predominates Itchin and Scratchin.

One feels protected and embraced by the figures that govern the dancefloor. A sense of belonging is apparent which is evocative of how music helped Caribbean diaspora communities find their homes again amongst each other and the omnipresent hum of the speakers.

Forrester has managed to depict the club scene in a way that promotes deeper analysis, calling for appreciation of the presence of music in Black cultures, and the power of connection.

The Time is Always Now exhibition ends on May 19, 2024. Visit to book tickets.

Featured image by Amy-Leigh Bernard via Unsplash

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