“Norfolk does have a rich black history” - artist Danny Keen

PUBLISHED: 10:17 23 September 2020 | UPDATED: 11:07 24 September 2020

Artist Danny Keen with his paintings of Iraq war hero Johnson Beharry which was exhibited in The Imperial War Museum, London.
 PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Artist Danny Keen with his paintings of Iraq war hero Johnson Beharry which was exhibited in The Imperial War Museum, London. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2010

The chairman of Norfolk’s Black History Month committee is proud to call the county his home

Artist Danny Keen, right, unveils his portrait of Norwich actor Roger Nsengiyumva at the City Hall as part of last year's Black History Month. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYArtist Danny Keen, right, unveils his portrait of Norwich actor Roger Nsengiyumva at the City Hall as part of last year's Black History Month. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Danny Keen is an artist. He paints dramatic pictures of heroes – war heroes, film stars, a pioneering nurse, scientists.

“Becoming an artist was my only burning ambition,” said Danny, of Gresham, near Cromer.

“I was born in Jamaica (British West Indies), and came to this country in 1952. Living conditions in Notting Hill Gate were harsh for everyone, but only the worst was available for us. Racial prejudice was at the core of British life then. West Indians were the lowest level of a class- based fading colonial empire. Everything was stacked against us.”

Danny’s grandfather fought in the First World War and in 1950 his mother left her two young children in the care of her sisters in Jamaica and travelled to Britain to work in a factory. Danny arrived as a four-year-old.

Danny Keen   Picture: Denise BradleyDanny Keen Picture: Denise Bradley

“Our generation made this country our home, just like many other immigrants from all over the Empire. If called upon to do so I would fight for this country just like the older generations did in World War One and Two,” he said.

Instead his working life has mainly been spent in kitchens - but his paintings have been displayed in the Imperial War Museum. “Racism was common in the workplace back then. In the 1960s I joined the team of washer-uppers and pot scrubbers in Harrods. We were all West Indians led by a foreman from Trinidad – none of us were allowed to eat in the staff restaurant. Whites only. We had to eat sitting on boxes by the back door of the kitchen.”

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Danny has lived in Norfolk for more than 30 years. “I moved here seeking a better place to raise my children,” he said. “I joined other artists who also moved from London. In Norfolk I have lived amongst neighbours who are gifted artists, writers and musicians, as well as farmers and landowners. Many are life long friends.”

A painting by Danny Keen of scientist rapper Jonathan Chase  Picture: Denise BradleyA painting by Danny Keen of scientist rapper Jonathan Chase Picture: Denise Bradley

He likes to paint people who have made a significant contribution to British life and society and is working on portraits of Floella Benjamin and former European MP Sayeed Kamal.

“The developments that I have seen in equality and diversity have been vast,” he said. “Modern Britain is hardly recognisable as the same country where I arrived in 1952. It is little surprise to me that this is the favoured destination for so many people seeking a better life. Britain is the most culturally, and racially diverse country in Europe.

“It would be easy to dwell on the incidents of racism that I and my children experienced, but they would not characterise our lives in Norfolk.”

In the past he said he had been stopped by police after working late nights in Norwich, and accused of trespassing after buying a property in rural Norfolk. More recently he was angered by the illegal deportations of people who arrived, like him, on ships like the Empire Windrush calling it “a testament to the systemic racism that still persists.”

But he said the Black Lives Matter movement has already made people more aware and hopes it will mean permanent improvements.

“I am proud to call Norfolk my home. It has allowed me and my family to develop. I am the chair of the Norfolk and Norwich Black History Month committee, and yes, Norfolk does have a rich Black History!

“Horatio Nelson’s first sea voyage was to Jamaica when he was a 13-year-old boy sailor. One of his sons with Lady Hamilton married the famous Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole.

“This county was the home to some of the most ardent abolitionists led by Thomas Buxton and Elisabeth Fry. One of the most famous and glamorous black families in the world, the Duleep Singhs are associated with Norfolk. This county saw the first black mayor in the country, and so much more…”
For more information visit norfolkblackhistorymonth.org u

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