Telltale: The Brixton Riots And Other Stories At The Elspeth Kyle Gallery

| 06 October 2006
painting shows older woman collapsed by chair as her daughter holds her shoulder and four policemen search her house

Madonna Metropolitan by Kimathi Donkor (2005). Courtesy of the artist

Telltale is the first exhibiton at a the new Elspeth Kyle Gallery. The eight black artists work in a mixture of media from film to painting, to photographs which are displayed around the staircase of the gallery.

We visited the gallery and then spoke to Kimathi Donkor whose paintings often cover themes from Black history. The images on show here are about eight terrible days during the Brixton riots of 1985.

painting shows black woman being shot by policeman

Under Fire by Kimathi Donkor (2005). Courtesy of the artist

His images combine great realism of people and expressions with stylised composition and bare urban backgrounds - a street, a police cell, a raided house. Donkor says that most of the images are not life portraits of people, but they are very firmly grounded in the events of the Brixton riots.

In 1985 a Black woman Cherry Groce was shot by the police whilst they were searching her house for her son. She lived, but was paralysed. A few days later Cynthia Jarrett also collapsed and died during a police raid at her home; her daughter Patricia said that she had been knocked down by the police. These two incidents led to widespread rioting in London, at Broadwater Farm and in Brixton.

During the riot PC Kevin Blakelock was killed; Winston Silcott was convicted of his murder, but the conviction was quashed, and the real killer has never been found. You can trace the events through these paintings, and their darkly wry, understated titles.

painting shows fallen policeman in riot gear. His unknown assailant walks away

On Duty by Kimathi Donkor (2005). Courtesy of the artist.

Donkor created these images in 2005, but says the events of those days have informed his art for a long time. He says "I did paintings of these events as part of my degree show". He was very close to the events of the Brixton riots - living in the area at the time, he took part in the protests during the aftermath. In preparing for the pictures, he also read much of the contemporary documentation, like the inquest into the death of Cynthia Jarrett.

painting shows policeman striking naked black man in police cell

Helping with enquiries by Kimathi Donkor (2005). Courtesy of the artist.

The odd one out amongst these paintings is Helping with enquiries. Donkor says this is a picture of what happened to him on his first day in London when he was picked up and strip searched by the police. When I ask him how much he thinks things have changed, his answer is measured - "the police need to be a 'force' but in a way that the community is happy with.....when I speak to younger Black men they still think they are more likely to be stopped by the police."

A walk around Tate Britain reveals many earlier British painters dealing with historical themes - but today Donkor is unusual. He's previously painted a series about the liberation of Haiti and he says he is planning to paint another series about the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade for next year's bicentenary.

Tales told by the other seven artists are less explicit - Larry Achiampong has painted his installation Those who take the fast lane will crash directly into a cupboard room in one corner of the gallery. A basketball sits in the corner; elsewhere a painting has the top of a skateboard as its canvass, entitled Live by the Gun, die by your foolishness - both reflecting on the dangers of, and to, tooled-up urban youth.

Helena Appio's film A Portrait of Mr Pink tells a gentler and more whimsical story. Panning over a Londonscape of large wealthy-looking Victorian terraces, the camera alights on a house painted in startling colours - garish or vibrant, depending on your taste. This is the home of the eccentric Mr Pink who came to London from Jamaica 40 or 50 years ago, and has spent the years of his retirement continually painting: in reds, oranges, blues, and snaking vines of colour both inside and outside his house. He also maintains a garden of flowers which he picks to garland his sunhats. He is a figure of lonely innocence - content in London, but playing the music of a long-ago Jamaica.

This is only the second show at the newly opened Elspeth Kyle Gallery. Although the venue is only a little way from both the Tate Modern and Southwark tube, it seems a little isolated on the Blackfriars road, and is currently only open during the working week.

On the plus side, this a great exhibition in an enjoyable space - an attached organic cafe offers the chance for City workers to grab a bite and see this compelling art in the space of a hour.

Telltale continues until 3rd November 2006. Admission Free.


Useful Links

The BBC's timeline of events around the 1985 Brixton riots

Kimathi Donkor's website

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