Donald Rodney's X-ray vision

The Black British artist Donald Rodney was a pioneer. His was a practice characterised by innovation, a particularly crafted application of technology, and deep considerations of matters ranging from constructions of ‘race’,  through to issues relating to the healthcare sector. So skilled was Rodney that we can, year on year, increasingly appreciate the ways in which his distinctive practice cut across, or created interplay between, questions of race, disability, illness, as well as using digital technologies to remarkable effect.

Rodney suffered from sickle cell anaemia, an inherited blood disease that is more common in people with an African or Caribbean family background. The disease produces blood cells that do not live as long as healthy ones, and can block blood vessels and lead to other serious health challenges. Rodney died in 1998, aged 36, from complications arising from his sickle cell anaemia.

…It was in 1987, during one of Rodney’s many protracted stays in hospital, that he began to use X-rays prints drawn from the hospital’s discarded stock. These were made available to Rodney once any identifying markers were removed, to ensure patient anonymity. Discovering these metaphorically powerful materials enabled Rodney to produce, from his hospital bed, unprecedented works of monumental scale. He would first make a scaled drawing of what was to be his final composition, before over-layering the drawing with a grid. Each rectangle of the grid corresponded in the final work with an X-ray; Rodney would then cut into or paint onto each one, before mounting them on a larger surface.  With their Frankenstein-like aesthetic, they seemed wholly appropriate to the difficult subject matter he was tackling. One, for example, reproduced a photograph of a terrified Black youth being arrested by two police officers, their detached demeanor in marked contrast to the young man’s emotions. In Rodney’s version of the image, the officers are presented as monstrous ghouls. 

Rodney’s use of X-rays as a raw material for his art was a stroke of genius. An X-ray is the means by which a surgeon sees illness or damage otherwise invisible to the naked eye. In the same way, only those so attuned can see beyond what might look like a society in pretty good shape, to spot instead the frequently unacknowledged illnesses of racism, discrimination and police violence.

The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers, “Breakthrough: Donald Rodney’s X-ray vision”, RA Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, No. 151, Summer 2021: 24 [This issue of RA magazine includes a page - "Contributors on The artists they think every child should see". Chambers was one of 18 contributors, his suggestion being "Jacob Lawrence. The American artist's distinctive paintings were executed in ways that people of all ages, including children, could easily relate to, telling stories from history and of community". The only illustration on the page was a work by Lawrence - In the North the Negro had better educational facilities, 1940-41 "as chosen by Eddie Chambers".