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“the power of restraint”

Debbie Meniru

A hand which caresses a baby’s head, which cradles the yolk of an egg as the white slips away between fingers, a finger delicately placed against my eye to remove an eyelash intruder…

…Donald Rodney made this photograph, and the sculpture it captures, while he was in hospital receiving treatment for sickle cell anaemia. Using his own skin that had been removed during an operation, Rodney constructed a house, holding fragments of his body together with little dressmaker’s pins. His are gentle hands, holding with care a representation of the illness that has confined him to his hospital bed. Sickle cell anaemia is genetic, mostly affecting people of African and Caribbean heritage. Two years before Rodney made this work, his father died from the same disease. Rodney himself passed away in 1998.

I think about what kind of place this house might be. In the House of My Father certainly has some religious resonance. Perhaps it is a church or some other place of reverence. Maybe it is a home, simple in construction but endlessly deep and complex in meaning. For me, Rodney’s title conjures up ideas of inheritance and responsibility. But this house is fragile, as though any of these ideas might collapse at any time; there are no solid foundations in his world. Eddie Chambers, artist, writer and friend of Rodney, noted that ‘the house, a delicate, simple dwelling seemed to symbolise the fragility and the near-futility of Rodney having to live within a structure hopelessly unable to sustain itself or withstand even the smallest turbulence.’[1]

And so, the power in this image, it seems, is the power of restraint. How easy it would be, I think, to close your hand, to crush and to destroy. How much more strength it must take to nurture and to protect, even when you yourself are not protected.

Hands cannot lie. When I look at hands, I feel a stolen intimacy. A stranger’s hands across the table, at work, on the train. What would it feel like to touch those hands and for those hands to touch? Who have those hands caressed, held and felt? In Rodney’s work, there is an openness and a vulnerability. He invites us to imagine all the things his hands have seen and heard, and reveals himself to us in all his power and fragility.

March 2024

Donald Rodney’s work will be exhibited in a major touring retrospective Donald Rodney: Visceral Canker, opening Saturday 25 May 2024 at Spike Island, Bristol.

[1] Eddie Chambers, ‘My Catechism: The Art of Donald Rodney’, Third Text 44 (Autumn 1998): 53.

Artist / Maker