Work in Focus – Donald Rodney, In the House of My Father, 1997

As part of the blog for our exhibition, we wanted to focus on a few works and discuss them in more detail. The first work in focus – which has featured as the main image for our poster, leaflet and postcards this year – is Donald Rodney’s In the House of My Father (1997).

This immensely personal and moving photograph was taken by Andra Nelki while Rodney was in Kings College Hospital, London undergoing treatment for sickle cell anaemia, a debilitating inherited disease. In Rodney’s hand sits a tiny sculpture of a house made from pieces of his own skin delicately pinned together. Interestingly, the ‘house’ itself actually exists as an independent work, entitled My Mother. My Father. My Sister. My Brother (1996-7).

In the House of My Father was first exhibited at Rodney’s last solo exhibition ‘Nine Nights in Eldorado’, which took place at South London Gallery in 1997 and was dedicated to his father, who had died a couple of years earlier. The title of the work certainly suggests the intimacy of familial lineage and the memory of home. It takes on further meaning, as Rodney sadly succumbed to his illness in 1998.

Donald Rodney, In the House of My Father, 1997.
Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the Estate of Donald G Rodney

Rodney’s use of photography is interesting in relation to his hospital experiences. Over the course of his illness, extensive medical data was accumulated, including photographs, x-ray scans and DNA sequencing. He incorporated discarded x-rays as a medium and used his experience with his illness as a metaphor for what he perceived as the ‘diseased nature’ of contemporary British society. This expressly autobiographical approach thus enabled Rodney to explore much wider questions and issues surrounding identity.

The idea of a personal documentation would lead Rodney to later assembling a comprehensive and multifaceted record of his body on an internet site, culminating in his posthumous project Autoicon, realised in 2000. The internet work simulates – and in a way, preserves – both Rodney’s physical presence and elements of his creative personality. Autoicon was developed by a close group of friends and artists, known as ‘Donald Rodney plc’.

When deducing meaning from In the House of My Father, I think the artist and curator Eddie Chambers made an important point with reference to Rodney’s relationship with his disease. He stated that Rodney ‘was always careful to maintain an intelligent and critical distance between himself and his illness. This work was not simply “about” Black people, or “about” sickle-cell [anaemia]. The work was about much wider constituencies and it broadly and specifically implicated all of its viewers, in a variety of ways.’