How did you first meet Donald Rodney?
I first met Donald en route to our first meeting of the Blk Art Group. That must have been the summer of 1982. Keith Piper had ‘recruited’ us, (Donald at Trent Poly, me at an opening of a black art group show at the Ikon) and we had arranged to meet somewhere in Birmingham city centre, I can’t remember where now, in order to travel together to Eddie Chambers’s parents’ house in Wolverhampton. Donald, Keith and I took the train together. Donald was loud, rude and very annoying. I remember him hitting me with the Sunday papers. He seemed to have bought all of them – tabloids, broadsheets everything. I would find out later that he was obsessive about newspapers, obsessive about most forms of popular culture; pop music, magazines, films…
Once we got to the meeting he was very different, very thoughtful, very quiet, very serious. He later told me that he had been in awe of Claudette Johnson. She always spoke so eloquently. Donald was an enthusiast, prolific in his musings, often extremely funny, full of energy. Whenever I think about him, it is his humour that comes to mind first of all and then the immense depths that lay behind it.
Then there are those aspects of Donald’s life that were far from fun. His sickle cell is also a prominent part of my memories of him. I remember the two of us setting off from Nottingham, where he was an undergraduate student sharing digs with Keith Piper and where many Blk Art Group meetings would take place. We took the 99 bus to Birmingham, where we were both going to see our families. As students it was the cheapest way to travel. At the start of the journey, Donald was in great rambunctious form, noisily critiquing the latest big movie, talking about the impact and contradictions of the black church, speculating on his own prognosis. By the time the temperature had dropped and we rolled into a deserted Birmingham Midland red bus station, some two and a half hour later, he was in crisis.
Like many of Donald’s comrades and colleagues, I have seen him in unbearable pain many, many times. His bravery was humbling to witness. He was always working, play was work. I am sure that his very profound sense of his own mortality made it impossible for him to waste time.
What would Donald Rodney have thought about having his archives devoted to Tate?
The irony of it would not have been lost! Donald would have had endless fun sending up the whole idea of the Tate having his archives. He would have used it as an opportunity to comment on the way living artists are marginalised and ignored instead of supported to further develop their practice. There is something quite distasteful about an art world which may treat Donald better dead than alive.
What was Donald Rodney’s involvement in the Black Art movement of the 1980s?
This is a huge question. He was a member of the Blk Art Group which during its time organised two national conventions on black art, as well as exhibitions at several galleries around the country and many seminars and presentations. The work of the group, the very fact of it existing, had an impact on both the world of curators and cultural theorists and on other artists at the time and subsequently.
He produced a massive body of work, experimenting with form and approach, constantly questioning what art is for and how to make it. I have seldom met an artist more completely dedicated to his practice or more committed to the profession.
Just as important, though more difficult to document and quantify, was his relationship with other practitioners, theorists, curators and students. For example students Amanda Holiday and Mowbray Odonkor organised a black art students group that Donald attended whilst he was at the Slade. He was always approaching other artists and students, always wanting to discuss the work
Donald spoke very passionately and articulately about his work (and the work of others),he had a very profound sense of the role of art and culture in society, was an enthusiastic consumer/hoarder/collector.
What key themes underpin Donald Rodney’s work?
Irony, comic book, comic strip, popularism, humour, archive, collection, meaning, power, empire, history, the black male body, pain, race, diaspora… Donald spoke really beautifully about his family, the church, the institutions, belief systems, and customs. He was analytical but also very loving and had a really profound sense of self. Self portrait is a recurring form. There is also a very careful, considered use of written text/language.
How do you feel about Black History Month?
I am somewhat cynical about Black History Month in that it represents the soft option for many institutions. Many are content to pull together something quite shabby and poorly-resourced which they can annex to their main programme during October instead of fundamentally re-examining their approach to content and meaning throughout the year.
I think it is important that Donald’s work is recognised, not because he was my friend, but because his work was and is truly important. It is therefore appropriate that the Tate should acquire the archive. However, I would like to see his work highlighted in discussions about its content and meaning. The themes in it and the context within which it was made are absolutely central to any thorough reflection on contemporary art of the period. It should not be annexed.