Friends First - The House that Jack Built, 1987, by Donald Rodney (1961-1998)
One of the most important aspects of Sheffield’s visual art collection is a group of work by black British artists working in the 1980s that focusses on reflecting the experience of black people living in the UK at the time. Among these works are three by Donald Rodney; Britannia Hospital 2, 1988, Britannia Hospital 3, 1988, and this one, The House that Jack Built, which is currently on long term loan.
Donald Rodney was born and grew up in Birmingham and studied Fine Art at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham. Rodney met fellow art student Keith Piper whilst at Nottingham, something which had a profound impact on him and led to his politicisation as an artist. Through Piper, Rodney met Eddie Chambers, Marlene Smith and Claudette Johnson amongst others, and with them he became part of a fluid line-up of radical black artists whose work specifically addressed the experience of being black in contemporary Britain. They exhibited work together in various exhibitions as the collectives The Pan-Afrikan Connection and The BLK Art Group.
Rodney was part of a generation of British-born black artists, filmmakers and performers who began to challenge notions of what it meant to be British. Their work incorporated contemporary and historical depictions of black people, placing them within a specific historical and political context whilst challenging notions around art, who makes it, and its function.
As Rodney matured as an artist, his work became increasingly politicised. He often incorporated text and used images from the media, art and popular culture in his work. He began making paintings, but from the mid 1980s he started to make mixed media installations like The House that Jack Built.
In this striking work made in 1987, Rodney has used x-rays as a metaphor for looking below the surface to discover how systems operate. They not only reference the body and medicine, but also reflect a society deeply affected by racism, police brutality and apartheid.
'…with x-rays you're looking beneath the surface to see what the structure of things really are' - Donald Rodney
The figure in this work is a self-portrait of Rodney, and the spine and nails in the chair shown in the x-ray refer to the increasing physical pain he was suffering. Rodney suffered from sickle cell anaemia throughout his life and had spent long periods of time in hospital. He often referenced his own illness in his work.
This piece also refers to the historical oppression of black people over the centuries. As a member of The BLK Art Group, Rodney was influenced by the Black Power Movement and black struggle in the US. There are many references to this in his work, such as the noose at the top of The House that Jack Built, which represents the horrific lynching of black people.
Rodney, like many of his peers in The BLK Art Group, often used everyday materials to make his work. Due to the delicate nature of some of these materials, the works were particularly vulnerable to deterioration and several were unable to be displayed for a long time. In 2011, Museums Sheffield held a major retrospective of The Blk Art Group, which saw the works given much-needed specialist care to conserve and safeguard them and make them ready for display once again.
As you can see in this image, over the years the x-rays on The House that Jack Built had become detached from the backboard and discoloured. The tape that held the x-ray backbone had also lost its tackiness, so it did not stay in position. Through the process of conservation, the x-rays were re-painted and reattached using magnets and the backbone reinforced with a stiff plastic foam and new tape. New storage crates were also created for this work so that it can be transported and stored safely.
It‘s not hard to imagine now just what an impact this piece would have made when it was first shown. While the work of Donald Rodney and his peers were borne of a particular historical moment, over thirty years later they speak powerfully and directly to the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement and have lost none of their relevance.
Museums Sheffield is continuing its celebration of Black History Month later in October with an online exhibition showcasing the works in the collection by black artists powerfully articulating their experiences of life in 1980s Britain. Look out for it in our Museums Sheffield from Home section soon.
Images (top to bottom):
- The House that Jack Built by Donald Rodney (© the Estate of Donald Rodney), flanked by Untitled, 1983, and And I have my own business, 1982, by Claudette Johnson (© the artist) in the 2011 BLK Art Group exhibition in the Graves Gallery.
- The House that Jack Built by Donald Rodney (© the Estate of Donald Rodney).
- The right panel of The House that Jack Built, showing the discolouration and detached x-rays prior to conservation.
- Britannia Hospital 2, 1988, by Donald Rodney (© the Estate of Donald Rodney).