In the House of My Father is a close-up photographic image of Donald Rodney’s hand, in which sits a minute sculpture of a house. The sculpture exists as an independent work, My Mother. My Father. My Sister. My Brother 1996-7 (The Estate of Donald G. Rodney, London). It was constructed from pieces of Rodney’s own skin removed during one of the many operations he underwent to combat sickle cell anaemia, an inherited disease that affects people of African, Caribbean, Eastern Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian ancestry. Both works address Rodney’s sense of family and identity, as a British-born artist whose parents had emigrated from Jamaica, as well as themes relating to mortality and his own illness. Sickle cell anaemia is a debilitating disease which causes high mortality rates in children and short life expectancy in adults. The artist and curator Eddie Chambers (born 1960) has observed that ‘the house, a delicate, simple dwelling seemed to symbolise the fragility and the near-futility of Rodney having to live within a structure hopelessly unable to sustain itself or withstand even the smallest turbulence.’ (Chambers, p.53.) Another commentator has said that this ‘prototype for a vernacular two-storey house...easily sits in the palm of the artist’s hand...It is a touching, ambiguous work that returns us both to the scholastic hierarchies of medieval scale, where small is infinite, and the more modern sense of small as confinement. Sitting in the artist’s hand it seems as though he could crush it in an act of definitive relegation.’ (Michael Norris ‘Para-Cities and Paradigms’ in Art Monthly, No. 224, March 2001, p.13.)
In the House of My Father was made for the 1997 exhibition ‘9 Nights in Eldorado’ at South London Gallery which Rodney dedicated to his father who had died in 1995. At the time of his father’s death Rodney was also in hospital and unable to be at his father’s bedside. He spoke about the personal anguish this caused him. Nine nights signifies the vigil, traditional in the West Indies, that takes place when someone dies. In the House of My Father was made during another of Rodney’s visits to hospital. The image was taken by the photographer Andra Nelki while Rodney was in Kings College Hospital, London. At the time, Rodney was making work and preparing for the South London Gallery exhibition from his bed, turning his shared room into an impromptu studio.
Rodney’s use of photography can be related to his hospital experiences, to the extensive medical data accumulated over his long illness including photographs, x-ray scans and DNA sequencing. In an essay on Rodney’s work, Dr Alison Bybee has commented that ‘we scientists are like paparazzi, using ever more sophisticated telephoto lenses to gather more and more intimate images.’ (Body Visual, pp. 31.) This aspect of documentation led Rodney to the idea of assembling a comprehensive record of his body on an internet site, culminating in his proposal for his posthumous project Autoicon which was realised in 2000.
Rodney’s work addresses ideas of identity, family, home and Britishness – particularly with respect to a British, Afro-Caribbean diaspora. While studying at Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham, in the early 1980s, Rodney met and became a close associate of Keith Piper (born 1960) and Eddie Chambers. The work of Piper and Chambers was a revelation to Rodney in that it dealt directly with the experience of being black. Together they formed the Black Art Group. From this point onwards Rodney’s work became politically engaged, dealing overtly with the themes of black identity and the position of ethnic minorities in Britain. He became part of a generation of British-born black artists, filmmakers and performers who began to challenge accepted notions of what it meant to be British and contributed to an emergent black British consciousness. Rodney worked in a variety of media. Initially he made paintings but later created photographs, mixed media installations and works incorporating electronic media. Much of Rodney’s imagery stems from the fact that he had suffered from sickle cell anaemia from infancy. Rodney developed a highly personal vocabulary, for instance incorporating discarded x-rays as raw materials, though intending these references to medicine and the body to refer metaphorically to social sicknesses, including racism, police brutality or apartheid, as much as to his personal circumstances. In this way his autobiographical approach enabled him to explore wider questions of identity.
The work exists in an edition of three. The two other examples are in the collections of the Arts Council of England and the National Museum and Galleries of Wales.
Eddie Chambers, ‘My Catechism: The Art of Donald Rodney,’ in Third Text no.44, Autumn 1998, pp.43-54
9 Nights in Eldorado, exhibition catalogue, South London Art Gallery, London 1997, reproduced in colour (unpaginated)
Body Visual: Helen Chadwick, Letizia Galli, Donald Rodney, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Centre, London 1996, pp.29-32
A website project containing further information can be found at: www.iniva.org/autoicon/