Grace review – skin in the game

Years ago I saw a work by the British-Jamaican artist Donald Rodney that I have never forgotten. It was a house with dark shadows on the wall, composed of hospital X-rays. In front of it sat a faceless figure, little more than torn clothes, held up by a broken tree that rose like a spine – or a lynching – from the frayed collar of his shirt.

Scissors, words and hands appeared in pale silhouette against the X-rays, interpreting the past as a silent film. Rodney referred to his Black family tree, his childhood home. The house that Jack built was, quite literally, created from medical evidence of the disease that would ultimately kill him, as it had been fatal for the 75 million black souls remembered here: Caribbean victims of sickle cell anemia.

Rodney (1961-98) died so young and yet left so much behind. The House… is not even his most celebrated work. Spike Island named their vital and indispensable research after its installation in 1990 Visceral cancer. This exoskeletal pumping system transports the deadly blood, with its mutated red sickle cells, around and around a schematic hospital of switches, plugs and wires, past some of those gold-leaf-covered wooden planks bearing the names of institutional benefactors. One coat of arms belongs to the Queen, the other to the slave trader Sir John Hawkins, patron of Hawkins Hospital in Kent. It is shocking to see the bound, enslaved person who became his weapon.

As his hospitalizations became more frequent, he began working on a digital, text-based “chat” system. You can still talk to him, or at least ask questions

However, this is not just illness as metaphor, or what another artist might call the body politics. Rodney does not speak directly to (or about) the state, like his South African contemporary William Kentridge, although both artists worked with sharp black paper cutouts. Rodney’s stream of silhouettes for Soweto/Guernica (1988) is a brilliant sequence of protesters, police and burning houses unfolding in a long sequence that could perhaps be Johannesburg or Brixton. And British racism always permeates; witness a lightbox installation of black footballer John Barnes kicking back a banana that is lobbed at him on the field.

Rodney’s art is something different: more personal, more internal and more poetic. It is present in what appears to be a sample of microscopic black cells from one of his sketchbooks, made so many times in the hospital, that appears to resemble the infamous Brooks slave ship plan of 1781. And it is there in Flesh of my flesha triptych of monochrome images showing what appears to be three long, winding braids.

The central image is a close-up of one of Rodney’s hip scars, sutured and then over-stitched by a surgeon who believed the black skin needed many more stitches. On either side are two silk hairs, which also extend like threads; one is by Rodney, the other by white artist Rose Finn-Kelcey. They are identical.

An empty wheelchair moves softly through the galleries, almost approaches you, talks to you and then disappears again: a lonely presence. Rodney speaks most poignantly about the isolation of his illness in a film tribute made for and about him by his colleagues at the BLK Art Group. As his hospital stays became more frequent and his income decreased, he began working on a digital, text-based “chat” system. You can still talk to him, or at least ask questions, while sitting at a computer desk in front of him Car icon.

There are many more works on Spike Island: sculptures, automatons, slide shows, paintings. Some come from public collections, others have been specially recreated by the curators who had the vision to organize this exceptional show. But the most powerful work of all is by far the smallest, condensed like a sonnet: a tiny house, paper-thin and fragile, standing on a few centimeters of plank in the wilderness of a huge glass frame. This house could be blown down in one breath; the only thing holding it together is a few household pins.

My mother My father My sister My brother comes from the last years of Rodney’s life. It has connotations of all his ancestors, but also of mortality itself. Because this fragile house is made of something just as ephemeral: a piece of skin from the artist himself.

Had Rodney lived – and there is still no sure cure for sickle cell anemia – he would have been in his sixties and would no doubt have been a recipient of the Tate Britain commission long ago. This year it goes to another artist of Caribbean descent, namely a 41-year-old Alvaro Barrington, honoring the people of its past through the resonant grandeur of the Duveen Galleries. Barrington’s Grenadian grandmother is the first to be lovingly remembered with clusters of rattan sofas, carefully protected with blanket-stitched plastic, on which you lie stretched out to the sound of warm rain drumming on the corrugated iron roof above. Wooden walls contain windows, which in turn are shrines to local fabrics, remembered from his childhood.

Out of the rain shower you find yourself in a carnival street scene where a four-meter high dancer, cast in shiny aluminum, rises like Venus from a ring of steel drums that emit their music when touched. Barrington paints life-size revelers on raw burlap – chunky, cheerful, rotating – strung on parade scaffolding. Costumes, music and jewelry all come from friends and fellow artists.

But we’ve been here before, done much better by Hew Locke, and in this place. What stands out instead is the powerful change in tone in the final space. The lighting becomes solemn and eerie, the scaffolding turns into police barriers, the island house is now a boarded-up kiosk, its steel shutters raising and lowering to reveal the sinister cell within. Inspired by Barrington’s adolescence in New York, sheltered by his mother, Emelda, the atmosphere rises to a crescendo between rows of prayerful – and plastic-lined – pews.

Wandering, listening, feeling, perhaps even more than watching: that is the invitation of Barrington’s drama in three acts. But the climax is entirely visual. A beautiful stained glass window, high above, displays the modest weaves of his youth as a radiant, now all-together choir of color and love.

Star ratings (out of five)
Donald Rodney ★★★★
Alvaro Barrington ★★★

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