Black and white photo of an artwork consisting of sports trophies with engraved plaques detailing myths, caricatures and prejudices related to Black people

Things Arrive Together as Suffused and Inseparable: Donald Rodney

Jareh Das, Car­olyn Lazard and Robert Leck­ie con­sid­er Rodney’s work, and how his lega­cy rever­ber­ates among younger gen­er­a­tions of artists.


Donald Rodney (1961–1998) was a pivotal figure in the BLK Art Group, a collective of black artists that emerged in the United Kingdom in the 1980s. He developed a diverse practice that eschewed the mainstream art-world norms of the period by addressing issues related to race, representation, and identity politics through an engagement with Caribbean diasporic experiences in Thatcher’s Britain, cultural histories, as well as physicality and subjectivity. Throughout his life, Rodney grappled with challenges posed by sickle-cell anemia, a genetic disorder that mainly affects people of African, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Indian descent. This condition significantly impacted his work and became a recurring theme in his art, which engaged with the intricate relationship between the body, medical science, and the societal and racial implications of illness. In the following discussion, Jareh Das, Carolyn Lazard, and Robert Leckie consider Rodney’s artistic explorations against broader conversations about the politics of sickness and racialised individuals; complex interconnections between care and constraint; Rodney’s ability to merge personal stories with wider sociopolitical themes, which resulted in work both deeply intimate and universally relevant; and how Rodney’s contributions and legacy may reverberate among younger generations of artists.

Jareh Das
I grew up in Nigeria, and so black British artists of the 1980s and 1990s didn’t enter into my consciousness until later. In the case of Donald Rodney, I discovered the work in 2009 as an MA student. I am very familiar with the illness he had, sickle-cell anemia, as it has affected a sibling of mine. I began asking myself, what happens when illness is entwined in a conversation about contemporary art? This influences the artists, the kinds of work they’re making, the spaces in which they make work, some of the strategies of resistance that come into the work at the intersection of art and illness, the duality of being an artist and being a patient, and how certain spaces are reconfigured as creative spaces. Then also, thinking within the histories of black British art: Who’s more prominent, and who don’t we hear about? Rodney was extremely prolific - he was exhibiting, writing, doing so many different things during his short life span, and I’ve interrogated the systems of support and the network that fostered that.

Carolyn Lazard
I first encountered Rodney’s art in a 2019 London group exhibition in which my work was also included. Like you, Jareh, not working in a British context, it took longer for me to come to it. Psalms (1997) is the only work by Rodney I’ve ever seen in person, so almost my entire understanding of his oeuvre has been from a distance.

Robert Leckie
There’s a generation of people in the United Kingdom who will have seen many of Rodney’s works in the flesh thanks to his solo exhibitions 9 Night in Eldorado at South London Gallery in 1997, and In Retrospect at iniva, London, in 2008. But a lot of people of my generation haven’t, and for them Rodney occupies this semi-mythical status - he’s someone they’ve read about, and whose work they’ve seen in books or on the internet but not in real life. It’s so different when you experience it in person. Recently, one of my favorite works, Visceral Canker (1990), was installed in the Tate Britain collection rehang No Such Things as Society: 1980–1990. It’s so much bigger than it looks on the page, and you appreciate the materiality and ingenuity more when you see it in the flesh.

Indeed, an integral part of the work is about being at a remove from what we assume to be the site of art, how art is usually encountered. It’s noteworthy that in this moment, with changes in technology, there’s a continuation of this relationship of distance, separation, and absence that he was intimate with. For me, Rodney’s work is very much about his positionality as an artist in regard to art making and production, and his relationship to spaces of art. Yet those are critical things that tend to be left out in conversations around him.

In my own research on Rodney’s work and legacy, it’s been curious to encounter many different, passionate perspectives that often don’t align. But in talking to Diane Symons, Rodney’s widow (and tireless advocate), it’s become clear to me that this multiplicity of opinions is not necessarily about disagreement; it’s more a demonstration of people’s willingness to engage with the work from different perspectives at once. According to Diane, it’s just a continuation of what it was like when his friends were all gathered around his hospital bed. There was always an active, dynamic conversation happening, and of course people didn’t always agree.

The question of what point we enter or engage with the work is challenging to grapple with. On the one hand, a lot of artists today are interested in and inspired by Rodney’s practice, but not necessarily for the same reasons that have been discussed up until now by the people who were closest to him. What happens when the work comes to occupy a fixed historical position? Surely we need to take account of the kinds of conversations that have happened over the past twenty-five years, since his death.

Different people come to the work and take up aspects of a line they want to follow, whether it’s illness, or race, or identity politics, or black masculinity and ideas around representation. There is also a technological element in his work that was way ahead of its time and was speaking, especially in the later works, to the language and the equipment around him.

To me, the work alternately resists and anticipates the future. One concrete example of its tendency to resist the future is the series Britannia Hospital (1988), which is made up of grids of oil pastel paintings on X-rays—apparently a conservator’s worst nightmare. I understand Rodney was told that it was a bad idea because the work would so easily erode over time, but there’s something wonderful about the fact that he just went ahead and did it anyway. Then you have more future-oriented works like Psalms and Autoicon (1997–2000). Psalms, a motorized wheelchair fitted with proximity detectors, was made for Rodney’s South London Gallery show, to represent him when he couldn’t be there physically. Autoicon, on the other hand, engages users in a digital, text-based “chat” with Rodney. It embeds him in the future through technology, and was completed by a close-knit group of friends after his death.

I see Psalms as a critique of the positionality of the artist, the preconceived conditions of being an artist and art making. I don’t read the conditions of his life as a constraint, but rather, that he pulled the art context to himself, to his situation, to reframe art and art production. Some people talk about his illness, or how he used his experiences of medicalization as a metaphor for racial violence. I have a hard time with that. Would we look at some other artist who is multiply marginalized and say, for instance, “Oh, that person was engaging their gender as a metaphor for their queerness”?
In the case of Britannia Hospital, the very materiality of the work prevents such a reading. The X-rays are the surface and the foundation of these scenes of medical and racial violence. Here we might invoke Hortense Spillers’s conception of “flesh” in Rodney’s collapsing of the figure and ground of racial violence. In his work, those things arrive together as suffused and inseparable.

Conversation cont.

This text was originally published by MOUSSE on 5 October 2023. You can read the full conversation on their website here.

Visceral Canker, a major survey exhibition of Donald Rodney, is at Spike Island until 8 September 2024. Find out more here.

The exhibition is part of the West of England Visual Arts Alliance programme.

Black and white photo of an artwork consisting of sports trophies with engraved plaques detailing myths, caricatures and prejudices related to Black people
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