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From squatting to riots, Brixton’s street scenes from the 80s

From famous squats to the infamous riots, Brixton in the 1980s is a place with a reputation.

Today, some say Brixton is ‘on the up’ with foreign investors honing in and estate agents boasting of its energetic bar scene and Victorian housing stock.

But, the heart of Brixton has always been the same.

Now, The Bonnington Café in Vauxhall Grove, Vauxhall, is showcasing one man’s photographic archive of life in 1980s Brixton.

From his squatting days in Kellett Road onwards, John Torjussen photographed what he saw – providing a spontaneous record of street scenes.  

Mr Torjussen’s photographs will be on the walls of the Bonnington Café until the end of June (Picture: 2024 Bonnington Centre Community Association)

He said: “I think I took all the portraits because I felt it was a special time, interesting people from all over the world visited, and I just tried to document that without style or agenda. 

“I am inviting people from those days to the exhibition-those that are still alive-to see themselves and familiar faces and scenes from the past.”

Mr Torjussen squatted a lot in Brixton, and watched the 1981 riots from his front step. 

On 11 April 1981, tension between the police and youths led to Brixton being set aflame with a series of violent riots.

John Torjussen’s photographs of 1980s Brixton (Picture: 2024 Bonnington Centre Community Association)

The uprising, which caused 279 injuries to police and £7.5million-worth of damage in the form of burned vehicles and buildings, meant the voice of black Britain could no longer be ignored.

After Brixton came the Scarman report, the first in Britain to acknowledge “racial disadvantage”, although it denied that “institutional racism” was widespread in British society.

For a generation of black Britons, plagued by mass unemployment, poor housing and police brutality, Brixton was a refuge of power, political protest, literature and sound systems.

Mr Torjussen said: “There was an atmosphere of being a bit free and a bit mad, welcoming freedom and madness.”

His vivid portraiture and street scenes evoke the vibrancy and immediacy of that period, as well as his years as a reggae musician, playing “in houses and basements, rather than in public.”

John Torjussen’s photographs will be on display until the end of June (Picture: 2024 Bonnington Centre Community Association)

On Sunday from 7 to 10.30pm, Mr Torjussen will once again be playing alongside his old Reggae bandmates in the Bonnington Café space in Vauxhall Grove.

Set in the green oasis of Bonnington Square, the Bonnington Café first openned its doors in 1982 during the neighbourhood’s famous squatting years.

In the early 1990s, the Bonnington Centre Community Association (BCCA) purchased the entire building thanks to a National Lottery grant, and has run the site for the benefit of the whole community ever since.

The Cafémaintained its tradition of not being licenced to serve alcohol, with customers instead welcome to BYOB.

Mr Torjussen’s photographs will be on the walls of the Bonnington Café until the end of June.

You can read more about the exhibition on our website here. 

Pictured top: Photograph of young girls in Brixton by John Torjussen (Picture: John Torjussen / 2024 Bonnington Centre Community Association)

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