18 January - 18 February 1989
Donald Rodney starts with a watch-tower. Horses' heads rear above a fortified wall but, he says, "This is nothing to do with the four horsemen out of the apocalypse." It's the watch tower of a prison camp, not a Jehovah's Witness.
The horsemen come from the artist's experience of facing mounted police. Police in the saddle of Britain become a cartoon circus full of horrible horseplay. One figure horses around with truncheon between his legs like a string of sausages, one parades on the back of a monkey-man. The crouching victims are sub-humanised, by fear and by the rules which govern this vision of them.
They make you realise why history painting was considered the most important form here. Their horizons stretch from Zanzibar to Pakistan to Docklands to Grenada, far beyond art's usual trade routes of Milan-Dusseldorf-New York. An eagle-eyed audience of the artist's peers keeps up a constant frame of debate, forms as well as ideas move fast. The idea of a united black British art movement is coming under the sharpest scrutiny of all, as individual artists face their own complicated choices.
The whole exhibition is made from x-ray prints, their blue and black echoing the rays of the TV which, embedded in the wall, records us listeners as part of the same scene. The watch-tower's cutout silhouettes have edges fragile enough to look torn, not the line precisely followed with a scalpel, which in fact they are.
In Britannia Hospital the body istelf becomes a site for policing. Cherry Groce (the woman now paralysed from a police bullet) "recieves morphine for her spinal injuries", cut open like tha psychoanalytic portaites of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, herself disabled for much of her life. All we can see of the other patient, tendered by an Asian nurse, are his reaching arms; the wrist has become hollow like a glass tube, and only a hospital identity bracelet circles inside the hole.
Rodney's self-portrait is backed by lines from The Hollow Men, that TS Elliot poem where the world ends "not with a bang but a whimper". The figure is made from a lynching tree and wears a shirt ready stuffed with straw. On the wall opposite, in huge mosaic, is the trapped face of Stephen Bogle, who died in Thames magistrates' court from sickle-cell anaemia. Donald Rodney also suggers from sickle-cell anaemia, which, like Aids, is little understood because it only affects people who are themselves seen as disease in our body politic.
Text written by Amanda Sebestyen, published in New Statesman and Society, 1989.
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