Who'd a Thought It?: Exploring the Interplay between the Work of Frida Kahlo and Donald Rodney

Donald Rodney was a British artist of African-Caribbean background, born in Smethwick, Birmingham, England in 1961. [For information and material on Donald Rodney, see Doublethink (Essays by Eddie Chambers and Virginia Nimarkoh), edited by Richard Hylton, Autograph, London, 2003 and His Catechism: The Art of Donald Rodney, Third Text 44, Autumn 1998, pp. 43 - 54] One of the most consistently innovative, resourceful and intelligent artists of his generation, he battled with sickle-cell anaemia - a frequently debilitating disease of the blood, from which he suffered – until he succumbed to the condition, dying in March of 1998. Rodney’s work, from his earliest days as an art student at Trent Polytechnic, in Nottingham, in the East Midlands, through to his final one-man show at South London Gallery, some six months before he died, had consistent and distinctive qualities, that marked him out as a practitioner of unique ability and sensitivity. Over time, Rodney found himself increasingly debilitated by the effects of his sickle-cell anaemia, and as a consequence of this, found himself spending ever-greater periods of time in hospital, either waiting for yet another ever more critical operation, or recovering from one. Beyond the frequent periods of hospitalisation were the periods of post-operative convalescence, in which he was bed-bound or otherwise confined to his London home. As Rodney’s sickle-cell anaemia worsened, he drew much inspiration from a number of figures from art history, including Frida Kahlo, and over a period of a decade or so, produced an astonishing body of work that reflected the profound ways in which Kahlo influenced him, seeing in her, as he did, another artist who battled with pain and illness to produce remarkable, extraordinary work.

It was in some ways not surprising that Rodney should have picked up on so significant a figure from art history as Frida Kahlo, and time and time again his work demonstrated her profound influence on him. Pablo Picasso was another iconic artist from whom Rodney had drawn inspiration. At one point Rodney had sampled one of Picasso’s most famous and celebrated works, Guernica, in the making of Soweto/Guernica, which used Picasso’s monumental, masterful and violent commentary on a particularly bloody episode from the Spanish Civil War to illustrate a more recent episode of equal barbarity, viciousness and lack of respect for human life, the South African state’s vicious attempts to suppress Black South Africans’ demonstrations against apartheid, sparked by school children protesting against being taught in Afrikaans, a language they perceived to be that of their oppressors. [Soweto/Guernica, 1988, oil pastel on x-ray and paper. Exhibited in Crisis, Chisenhale Gallery, 18 January – 18 February 1989]

Like fellow Black-British artist Keith Piper, Rodney’s work was dynamic, fresh and particularly politically and socially relevant, characterized as it was by its distinctive use of image and text and its keen awareness of modern art trends such as Pop Art, mixed media and assemblage sculpture. To this end, Rodney’s work of the mid 1980s revealed the influence of major figures of mid 20th century American art such as Robert Rauschenberg. In an interview conducted with Rodney in the late 1980s, he had made mention of the extent to which he had been steeped in a knowledge of art history. “When I went to Trent [Polytechnic] I’d been brought up in the tradition of painting. I knew how to paint. I knew the history of painting. I knew my Picassos, my everything.” [Donald Rodney in conversation with Lubaina Himid, State of the Art, Channel 4, 1987]. In knowing this history, Rodney sought not so much to make work that stood outside of this history. Instead, Rodney sought to make work that critiqued that history (in terms of its partiality and bias), whilst simultaneously demanding for himself a credible place within a more equitable and textured history of art.

The above extracts are from a text written by Eddie Chambers that appeared in Wasafiri, Issue No 71, Autumn 2012: 22 - 33