Lubaina Himid’s Cotton.com (2002) is an absolute show stopper and captures your attention as soon as you enter the exhibition space of GENERATIONS. Made up of 84 individual patterned oil paintings and a brass strip, it is a mesmerizing work that deserves a closer look.
Installation Shot: Cotton.com in GENERATIONS: Connecting Across Time and Place
The creation of Cotton.com was inspired by an act of solidarity. In the nineteenth century, textile workers living in the northwest of England were affected by the American Civil War, as their livelihood was dependent on the provision of slave-grown cotton. Even though the British mill workers were themselves living and working under harsh conditions, they held rallies and wrote to President Lincoln, supporting his decision to end slavery in the United States.
Lubaina Himid decided to capture this historic moment of unity between the British working class and enslaved plantation workers across the Atlantic. She wanted to create an imagined conversation between both parties, but instead of using text or language, Himid turned towards patterns. Each of the 84 panels has a unique black and white pattern, creating a conversation that is open to interpretation and accessible to everyone.
The work is crowned by a long brass panel stating: ‘He said I looked like a painting by Murillo as I carried water for the gang just because I balanced the bucket on my head.’ This quote is adapted from a sentence that Himid found in a plantation inspector’s report. Himid felt that she needed to rectify this objectifying statement, and rephrased it so that it is now written from the woman’s perspective, giving her a voice and agency.
Cotton.com being unpacked and condition checked during installation period
The work addresses the impact of colonialism, transnational trade, slavery and misogyny. From the very beginning of our exhibition process, we knew that we wanted to show this powerful piece, and it has stuck with us ever since. Cotton.com was also the first work that was hung during our installation process. It took an entire day to unpack, condition report and hang all 85 components. Before all of this happened, our art handlers had to grid the wall meticulously so that the distance between each panel is exactly the same.
Now that the work is up on the walls, it has taken on a life on its own. Placed together with Helen Cammock’s There’s a Hole in the Sky Part II: Listening to James Baldwin (2016) and Lucy Skaer’s The Tyrant (2006), we hope that it sparks conversation about distribution of power, and how it is crucial for us to learn from the past in today’s world.
Our very own Debbie giving a tour in front of Cotton.com
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.’