BLACK ART MATTERS: Reflecting on the life, works and art-political legacy of Donald Rodney, 1961-1998

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Black Art Matters’ (first broadcast on 29 June 2017) is available to listen to online via the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk. This 30-minute programme features Professor Sonia Boyce MBE (RA) in conversation with family members and friends of the British contemporary visual artist Donald Rodney (1961-1998) – one of the most central and important founding figures involved in the Midlands-based ‘Blk Art Group’ during the 1980s, who sadly passed away two decades ago (due to the illness Sickle Cell).

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Contemporary British artist, and Royal Academician, Professor Sonia Boyce MBE narrates the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Black Art Matters’ about the life and works of Donald Rodney. (URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08vzrth).

Boyce begins her reflective voice-over with a review of Donald Rodney’s visceral and racially charged installation piece The House that Jack Built” (1987). Her perceptive commentary is layered and interspersed with other art-historical observations taken from interviews with several contributing artists and guests who attended the exhibition launch reception for “The Place is Here” (Nottingham Contemporary, 4 February – 30 April 2017).

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Exhibition view of “The House that Jack Built” (1987), by Donald Rodney, displayed as part of the contemporary art exhibition The Place is Here (Nottingham Contemporary, UK, 2017) about the British Black Art movement in the 1980s. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Rodney’s complex, hard-hitting and unsettling mixed-media installation features a set of x-rays of the artist’s body arranged against the gallery wall to form the silhouetted structure of a house, overlaid with white-painted text and pictorial imagery commenting on the traumas and enduring legacies of enslavement, racial segregation, the brutalities of apartheid and other forms of racialized, anti-black violence throughout world history. Prominently positioned on a chair in front of the “house” is a seated figure, with a large tree-like structure sprouting from the neck of a paint-splattered striped shirt to create the slumped frame of a man’s body.

Listening to Boyce’s commentary about the “echoes of lynching history” reflected in this piece brought to mind works by other high-profile artists from the wider global African diaspora(s) that have also addressed these difficult, sombre and heart-rending themes in their work – most notably the oeuvre of renowned African-American contemporary visual artist Sanford Biggers, whose melancholic and haunting installation Blossom” (2007) is on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum, New York.

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“Blossom” (2007) – an installation by African-American contemporary artist Sanford Biggers (b. 1970, Los Angeles, CA). Steel, silk, wood, MIDI player piano system, mound of earth and clay. The piano featured at the centre of this assemblage plays a recording of the haunting anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” made famous by the jazz singer Billie Holiday.

Mid-way through ‘Black Art Matters’ Boyce moves on to consider Donald Rodney’s wider contributions to the British contemporary art canon – both in relation to, and beyond, issues of ‘race’ and representation. Her reflections are conveyed discursively through conversations with fellow artists Marlene Smith and Keith Piper, and also the curators Ian Sergeant and Mike Phillips, who all knew and worked closely with Donald Rodney throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Through this warm and engaging sequence of ‘fly on the wall’ conversational snippets,  other key artworks from Rodney’s portfolio are referenced and regarded in tandem with contextualising commentary on the politics of identity, corporeality, citizenship, migration and diaspora formation.

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“In the House of My Father” (1996-1997) – photograph of a miniature house sculpture made from the artist’s own flakes of skin. Image dimensions: 1220 x 1530 mm. Source: Tate (Collection reference: P78529). © The Estate of Donald Rodney.

The following three works from Rodney’s oeuvre, completed in the final few years of his life, were given close scrutiny:

  • The mixed-media piece Land of Milk and Honey” (1997), comprising a glass-encased, honey and milk-soaked collection of hundreds of copper coins
  • A motorized wheelchair installation – Psalms” (1997) – designed to speak to and visualise the various absences and exclusionary practices that effectively render invisible many black and disabled people, and other marginalised and minoritized groups within the mainstream of British social and cultural life
  • The digitized, audio-based archive repository – “Auto Icon” (1998) – that Boyce refers to as an artistic memorialisation of “The Virtual Donald Rodney.”
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Detail from the mixed-media artwork “Land of Milk and Honey” (1997) by Donald Rodney – on permanent display at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK.

Appropriately, the ‘Black Art Matters’ programme closes with concluding remarks about the need for much wider recognition of Donald Rodney’s aesthetic, intellectual and political contributions to British cultural life and society – a man rightly considered worthy of becoming an “artist of reference” and “pivotal figure” for emerging artists, arts scholars, activists and wider publics to study and appreciate long into the future.

Land-of-Milk-and-Honey-1997-Iniva

For further contextual information about Donald Rodney’s life and portfolio of work, please see also:

Vivid Project’s “Reimaging Donald Rodney” (2016) – a Birmingham-based exhibition and event programme, curated and produced by Ian Sergeant and Yasmeen Baig-Clifford, examining identity politics through the digital artistic legacy of Donald Rodney. A key feature of this innovative project (viewable online, via the Vivid Project website) was the provocation and articulation of questions about cultural, physical, social and situated identities as part of wider, intersected critical discourses on art, health, (dis)ability and well-being.

“British Black Art in the 1980s…” (2017) – my recently published review piece on Museum Geographies about the above-mentioned contemporary art exhibition “The Place is Here” (Nottingham Contemporary, 4 February – 30 April 2017).

 

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Carol Dixon

Carol Ann Dixon is an education consultant and academic researcher interested in African and Caribbean diaspora histories and heritage, cultural geography, museology and contemporary visual art. Her PhD dissertation/doctoral thesis is titled "The 'othering' of Africa and its diasporas in Western museum practices" (University of Sheffield, UK, 2016).

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