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Donald Rodney

Born, 1961 in Birmingham, England. Died, 1998

image of Donald  Rodney

Donald Gladstone Rodney (18/5/61 - 4/3/98) was one of the most interesting artists of his generation. He produced his art by refusing to let sickle-cell anaemia - the frequently debilitating disease of the blood, from which he suffered - get the better of him.

As an artist, Donald Rodney was widely respected. His work, from its earliest days as an art student at Trent Polytechnic, right through to his final one-man show at South London Gallery, had consistent and distinctive qualities, that marked him out as a practitioner of unique ability and sensitivity.

Donald Rodney was born in Birmingham in 1961. After completing a Foundation Course at Bournville School of Art, he went on to his Fine Art degree at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham, where he quickly fell in with fellow Brummie, Keith Piper, the two becoming close, lifelong friends. On one particular programme from Channel 4’s 1987 series State of the Art, Donald Rodney suggested that it was Piper’s influence that steered him away from flower-painting towards a more politically robust, Blacker form of art practice.

Donald Rodney’s art was never impersonal, heavy-handed, preachy or didactic. It was, instead, marked out by its wit, humour and intelligence. His work from the early 1980s consisted largely of work on canvas and wall-mounted assemblages, such as 100% Cotton, the South’s Favourite Cloth, which depicted a white lady and a military gentleman of the Confederate South, waltzing at a ball. No images of slave ships, no images of Black people. Yet the painting’s messages were clear and its readings were strong. Two figures - her ballgown puffed out by folds of cotton canvas - used to comprehensively reference the whole wretched enterprise of slavery and its attendant racism. To some, the image may at first have seemed harmless enough, playful even. To others, the menace of its sub-text may instantly have been apparent. But everyone coming into contact with this and other art by Donald Rodney found themselves engaging with the work - just as much as those who came into contact with the person found themselves charmed by his company.

From 1982 onwards, Donald Rodney exhibited widely, returning to college (Slade School of Fine Art, 1985-7) to secure his MA. By the mid-late 1980s Donald Rodney had begun to make considered and considerable use of discarded hospital X-rays within the work he was producing. Whilst he could not escape or conquer his sickle-cell, he refused to declare himself a victim of it. His use of X-rays was not to draw attention to the blood disorder that was slowly corroding his body. Instead, he used X-rays as a metaphor to represent the ‘disease’ of apartheid, the ‘disease’ of police brutality and the ‘disease’ of racism that lay at the core of society.

For Trophies of Empire, Donald Rodney borrowed and assembled a large number of cheap sporting trophies. These he displayed, embellished with labels that represented “half truths and [half] lies” within glass cabinets or on shelves. By using trophies, the artist was able to draw fresh attention to the supposed sporting prowess that simultaneously liberated and trapped Black people. Titled Doublethink, the work obliged us to consider the inescapable dualities, irreconcilable positions and the tormenting contradictions of race and racism. As Donald Rodney noted in the exhibition catalogue, “A black sportsman can receive both cheers of appreciation and taunts of racial abuse. This truism is entrenched into the contemporary fabric of black life”. Increasingly forced to spend greater parts of his months and years wheelchair and hospital-bound, Donald Rodney nevertheless succeeded in making ambitious work for a variety of exhibitions, in many parts of the country. These exhibitions included TSWA Plymouth 1990, the previously-mentioned Trophies of Empire, Arnolfini, Bristol 1992 and Care and Control Hackney Hospital 1995.

By the mid 1990s Donald Rodney had, with the help of his partner Diane Symons and close friends such as Virginia Nimarkoh, perfected his ability to direct and produce a range of work from his hospital bed. The result of this included Othello (Care and Control) and the magnificent, engaging body of work that formed his 9 Night in Eldorado exhibition at South London Gallery in September and October of 1997.

Donald Rodney was loved, respected and admired. Not only as an artist. As a partner, as a relative, as a hospital patient and as a friend to many people. Though his premature death was a tragic loss, he left behind a poignant and critical body of work.

His biographical details were included in the Transforming the Crown catalogue, though his work was not in the exhibition itself. Donald Rodney’s work was included in the book Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain.

One of Rodney’s most reproduced works is In the house of my father, 1997, colour photograph. Amongst many other publications, the work appears in Gen Doy’s Black Visual Culture, I.B. Tauris, 2000. Though the work is solely credited to Rodney, the photograph itself was taken by Andra Nelki.

Related items + view all 118

click to show details of Truth, Dare, Double-Dare... Ikon Gallery brochure

»  Truth, Dare, Double-Dare... Ikon Gallery brochure

Brochure relating to an exhibition, 1994

click to show details of Truth, Dare, Double-Dare... press release

»  Truth, Dare, Double-Dare... press release

Press release relating to an exhibition, 1994

click to show details of TSWA Four Cities Project - catalogue

»  TSWA Four Cities Project - catalogue

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1990

click to show details of Unrecorded Truths

»  Unrecorded Truths

Invite relating to an exhibition, 1986

click to show details of Us an’ Dem boxed catalogue

»  Us an’ Dem boxed catalogue

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1994

Related exhibitions + view all 30

»  The Image Employed

Group show at Cornerhouse. 1987

»  The Suitcase Show

Group show. 1988

Related venues + view all 56

»  The Black-Art Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  Camerawork

London, United Kingdom

»  Chisenhale Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  Ikon Gallery

Birmingham, United Kingdom

»  Rochdale Art Gallery

Rochdale, United Kingdom