At about this time last year I was working on a collection of material from the artist Donald Rodney. This collection is one of our most contemporary in the archive, mainly due to the circumstances of the donation of the material. Born and raised in Birmingham, Rodney was profoundly affected by encounters with artists such as Keith Piper and Eddie Chambers, who were re-examining social and historical narratives from a black perspective. His work became increasingly politicised, appropriating images from the mass media, art and popular culture to explore issues associated with history, representation, masculinity and the pernicious nature of racism. He later became interested in examining his experience of sickle cell anaemia, which he used as a metaphor for wider social and political ills in contemporary society. In 1998 Rodney succumbed to the disease, and died on the 4th March at the age of 37. Then in 2003 we acquired his papers, hence why they are so contemporary. This collection includes a fantastic set of sketchbooks which he started working on while he was attending Nottingham Trent University, which also happened to be where I studied for my photography degree. Three of these sketchbooks have been digitised and can be seen on the Tate website. However, I have chosen to talk about an item which highlights the theme of sickle cell anaemia in Rodney’s work. This item is a photograph which was taken while Rodney was working on the 1990 TSWA Four Cities project, where he exhibited Visceral Canker which is now held in the Tate Collection. It is a photograph of Rodney and his partner, Diane Symons, in an underground shelter on Coburg Street in Plymouth while Rodney prepares for the exhibition. The photograph is mounted on an x-ray, a medium which Rodney had often used as a canvas for large scale drawings, and which he used to illustrate his disease. Rodney used x-rays as a metaphor to represent the ‘disease’ of apartheid and racial discrimination in society, using his own weaknesses to an advantage in his artwork. From Ophelia (1851-2) by J.E. Millais to Fiona Banner’s Harrier and Jaguar (2010) artwork has represented death in some way, what effect do you think this has on the piece?
Written by Allison Foster