'Brixton Riot', pen & ink drawing completed 1987 based on sketches 11-13 April 1981
Rarely cheerful, often transgressive and largely political, British artist Mike Hawthorne’s work flits between being documentative, psychedelic and narrative, and all through an anti-establishment lens that emphasises violence and the simple or hedonistic efforts that people make to escape it.
Having drawn and painted since a child, not being formally educated in art and never developing a career as a working artist, Mike has always worked prolifically from the fringes, of the art world (beyond even that of ‘outsider art’ which he has flirted with but never been embraced by) and the environments he is situated in. “For thirty-odd years I tried to make a living as an artist but I haven’t got a clue how to do it,” he told me at MAP Studio Cafe, the walls of which are dotted with, amongst others’, Mike’s richly colourful paintings and intricate line drawings, large and small.
In the early 1960s, Mike’s family moved to Africa and he grew up across Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Congo, where he honed his drawing as an apprentice to an ivory carver, commissioned to produce thousands of small statues of the country’s brutal dictator, President Mobutu. Soon, he returned to England and, at his father’s behest, studied English. He did, however, continue to create art, zines and small pen and ink drawings. From what he showed me, at university and during the early-mid 70s his work consisted of juxtaposing drawings, some pared down and some sharply detailed, several of contented dancers and musicians, and many of aggressive, cowering or drunken figures. Since hearing about his ongoing battle with mental health from chilled-out and amiable Mike, the contrast between the images made complete sense.
Mike is fairly certain that the manic depressive tendencies were partly catalysed by the violence he endured at the hands of a sadistic headmaster before the family’s move to Africa. “That really cast a dark shadow over my whole life because I couldn’t really tell my parents what was going on. They were both from working-class families, they could never have dreamt that these places could be so awful. So I internalised it all.” The headmaster being a decorated WW1 officer was also conducive to Mike’s distrust of the powers that be, and during the time of Thatcher’s government, the rise of the National Front and boiling points being reached within black communities across the UK, Mike channelled his frustration at the world around him into observational art.
'36 Bus in Southeast London', pen & ink, 1975
Living in New Cross and immersed in the London reggae scene since the mid-70s, Mike found solace in profusely sketching his environment after emerging from committal to Maudsley Hospital “The first thing that suffers in the nuthouse is your self-esteem, art was a refuge because I had confidence in my own work.” His depictions of musicians, street scenes and the insides of blues clubs and pubs of Brixton and Islington put the tranquil or vibey day-to-day on display “I was just sitting in the corner drawing, listening to reggae and getting drunk, so for years I was a face there.” However, they are again counterbalanced by concurrent provocative drawings and ‘comix’ of squalor, violent racism and the uprisings of these years. These works are collectively known as Brixton to Broadwater and are Mike’s most synonymous and most reflective of his position as an outsider with insight.
Preliminary pencil sketch
“I got a bit of hassle because people thought that I was taking notes, that I was an undercover copper.” He laughs. “I had a couple of run-ins like that, even in Islington. I lived on Southgate Road, there was a pub called the Jolly Farmers that was run by an Arsenal footballer [Peter Storey] who was a criminal and he was counterfeiting money and occasionally I’d be drawing and they’d think I was some sort of snitch and I’d get threatened. After a while, I became known as Picasso. ‘Leave Picasso alone!’” Important to us still, these drawings, as Mike mentions, are incidentally “documentary of places that no longer exist” and have since found homes in the Museum of London and the Lambeth Archives.
According to him, the atmosphere changed in reggae clubs like Phebe’s and The Four Aces around 1986, “it got heavy” and “[there was] massive amounts of cocaine, suddenly. I began getting beaten up for no reason so I thought it was time to knock this on the head.” Jah Mick as he had become known by word of mouth, drawing record sleeves for several small reggae artists, explored less true to life imagery. His interest in Southern American voodoo, ancient mythology and religious scepticism were realised in lush hallucinatory acrylic paintings full of hypersexualised deities, war throughout the ages and, of course, musicians. Peter Tosh and Jimi Hendrix are depicted as a vampire slayer and resurrected pharaoh, respectively. His politicism never waning, Mobutu, Thatcher and the KKK also make appearances in grotesque and provocative pieces.
'BAD RELIGION', acrylic on plywood, 1989
One would have thought Mike’s work would be right at home in an outsider art gallery, it breaches modern artistic niceties, documents the marginalised and can be hard on the eye while at the same time inducing a morbid intrigue, alas “somehow, I get up those people’s noses. They like dealing with naive artists who are maybe in madhouses, preferably dead, and they make a lot of money out of them. The whole thing stinks a bit.”
Flyer design for 'Go to Hell' Rave, 1990