Donald Rodney – Land of Milk and Honey II
Donald Rodney (1961-1998) has been described as “fascinated by the way things live and rot”, which is reflected in the use of milk and copper coins in his sculpture ‘Land of Milk and Honey II’, currently on display in Birmingham Museums, Waterhall Gallery.
Born in Birmingham in 1961, Rodney was one of 12 children born into a Jamaican family. His family lived on Marshall Street in Smethwick, which became the centre of controversy when white residents gained council support to bar black families from moving into the street. Rodney spent most of his childhood in and out of hospital with sickle cell anaemia. Whilst hospitalised he would spend his time producing countless sketchbooks, which became his own tool for voicing his pain and to record his views on black identity and racism in the UK.
Rodney completed a pre-degree course at Bourneville School of Art and then studied art in Nottingham where he met fellow student Keith Piper. In the early 1980s Piper and Rodney formed part of an artist led group called the Blk Art Group. The artists in this group made thought-provoking work which responded to the crises of race relations in the UK and Overseas.
‘Land of Milk and Honey II’ was created as part of Donald Rodney’s final exhibition ‘9 Night in Eldorado’ held at the South London Gallery in 1997. The exhibition was a eulogy to the memory of his father who had died three years earlier. The sculpture consists of a vertical glass vitrine, filled with milk and copper coins. These materials have reacted with each other and shifted over time to create a striking range of colour, texture and pattern – a continual process which will alter its appearance. At the moment its possible to see how the coins have shifted downwards leaving varying shades of vibrant green.
The artwork is a metaphorical piece relating to the move of Caribbean people to the UK in the mid 20th century, including the artist’s father. The title of Rodney’s sculpture evokes the mythical ‘land of milk and honey’ that his father believed he would find when he travelled to Britain in the 1950s. The subsequent souring of hopes is shown through the inclusion of milk and copper coins. The use of these materials represents the artists own exploration of fragility in relation to his illness of Sickle Cell Anaemia and for what he saw as the diseased nature of modern British society and the treatment of the black community. Themes of fragility, sickness and decay recur in Rodney’s work and other artworks by him include X-Rays of his cells to tiny sculptures made from skin.
Land of Milk and Honey II has been acquired through the Contemporary Art Society. It is on display as part of STATIC: Still Life Reconsidered at Birmingham Museums’ Waterhall gallery, situated on Edmund Street. The display is on until December 31st 2014.