Donald Rodney was, until his untimely death, one of the most interesting, versatile and resourceful artists of his generation. Born and raised in Birmingham, he completed a pre-degree course at Bournville School of Art before going on to complete a BA (Hons) Fine Art degree at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham, graduating in the mid 1980's. He continued to live and work in London until his death, from sickle-cell anaemia in March of 1998.
Although Donald's sickle-cell anaemia - the frequently debilitating disease of the blood, from which he suffered - got progressively worse over the years, he refused to let it get the better of him; managing to produce a range of work for a variety of gallery and non-gallery spaces. As an artist, Donald was widely respected. His work, from his earliest days as an art student, through to what was to become his final one-man show ('9 Night in Eldorado'), South London Gallery, September 10th - October 12th 1997) had consistent and distinctive qualities, that marked him out as a practitioner of unique ability and sensitivity.
Upon arriving at Trent Polytechnic, Donald quickly fell in with Keith Piper. Piper's artistic practice had rapidly come to represent that body of younger, post -Brixton 1981 Black artists. That is, artists whose work was characterised by what was, in a British context, a new attachment to social and political narratives. Donald suggested that it was Piper's influence that steered him away from painting esoteric subject matter such as flowers, towards a more politically robust and topical form of art practice that referenced his identity and opinions.
Donald's art was never impersonal, heavy-handed, preachy or didactic. It was, instead, marked by its wit, humour and intelligence. His work from the early 1980's consisted largely of work on canvas and wall-mounted assemblages. Such were the unusual and dramatic devices employed by the artist, that gallery visitors coming into contact with art by Donald 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 exhibited widely, returning to college (Slade School of Fine Art, 1985-7) for a period of postgraduate study. By the mid-late 1980's he 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, Donald 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.
In 1992, Piper, working with a number of galleries including Arnolfini, Bristol, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull and Bluecoat Galley, Liverpool, developed a wide-ranging exhibition project called 'Trophies of Empire' which sought to critique issues rising out of the quincentenary 'celebrations' of Columbus 'discovery' of the Americas, and the coming of the 'Single Europe' in 1992. Donald's contribution was exhibited at Arnolfini, Bristol. For 'Trophies of Empire' he 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 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 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, the artist nevertheless succeeded in making ambitious work for a variety of exhibitions, in different parts of the country. These exhibitions included TSWA Plymouth 1990, the previously-mentioned 'Trophies of Empire' and 'Care and Control', a large-scale exhibition project that temporarily occupied the largely vacated Hackney Hospital in 1995.
By the mid 1990's Donald had, with the help of his partner Diane Symons and close friends and fellow artists such as Virginia Nimarkoh, perfected his ability to direct and produce a range of work from his hospital bed. The results of this collaborative process included 'Othello' ('Care and Control') and the poignant, engaging body of work that formed his '9 Night in Eldorado' exhibition.
One of the most compelling pieces of work in the exhibition was a small work, hardly measuring more than a few centimetres in any direction. Small as it was, the work seemed to effortlessly rise to the spatial challenges of the grandiose scale of the gallery. 'My Mother, my Father, my Sister, my Brother' was a tiny house made of skin, taken from the artist's body during the course of one of his numerous operations. The house, a delicate, simple dwelling seemed to symbolise the fragility and the near-futility of Donald having to live within a structure hopelessly unable to sustain itself or ultimately withstand even the smallest turbulence. And yet, concurrently, the house resonated with defiance, a curious strength, and comforting notions of 'home'.
One of the most profound works in the exhibition, 'Psalms', consisted of a motorised wheelchair, computer-programmed to continually navigate the floor space of the gallery. A press release described the work as follows: "the empty wheelchair courses through its various trajectories on a sad and lonely journey of life, a journey to nowhere. Its movements repeat like an ever-recurring memory, a memory of another life and another journey, that made by Rodney's father". The work had additional readings of even greater poignancy and symbolism. The wheelchair symbolised Donald's near-tactile omnipresence within the gallery, whilst simultaneously reminding the gallery audience of the artist's enforced absence from his own exhibition. Additionally, the meanderings of the wheelchair represented a quiet desperation to physically escape the confines of the artist's illness.
'Autoicon' marks the fulfilment of Donald's collaborative process mentioned earlier. It was a project that he was developing at the time of his death.