Illness as Metaphor: Donald Rodney’s X-ray Photographs, Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art (essay)


The late British artist Donald Rodney (1961–98) developed a unique vocabulary critiquing wider representations of the black male body that extended beyond his status as a person living with sickle cell disease to the lives of others with a shared racial background. Critical yet full of wit, Rodney was, until his death in 1998 from complications related to sickle cell disease, one of the most compelling artists to come out of the Black Arts Movement of 1980s Britain. From X-rays of his cells to tiny sculptures made from his own skin, Rodney created conceptual self-portraits of his life as a young black man. This article considers illness, art, and activism while reflecting on the effects of living with sickle cell disease and the continued invisibility around this illness, both on the African continent and beyond for the very reasons Rodney’s works highlight.

In focusing on the notion of illness as a metaphor in art and analyzing the metaphorical tropes of illness present in Rodney’s artworks produced during the late 1980s to early 1990s, the author’s intention is to think through the entangled understandings of illness and masculinity to seek new readings of Rodney’s works. The artist’s deeply moving, conceptual, and critically engaging oeuvre not only confronts the viewer with both the presence and absence of the black male body but also presents the spectator with the realities of the artist’s daily negotiations living with sickle cell disease. This disease affects people of African, Caribbean, Eastern Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Asian descent, and there is still no cure for it. It is a “black” disease that raises polemics of care toward black bodies and the invisibility of sufferers within the wider medical discourse. Rodney’s works form a compelling case for an artist’s dedication to making both him and his works visible while simultaneously acting as a form of resistance against marginalization and oppression on the basis of both race and gender. Rodney’s practice is considered here within wider discourses dealing with a postcolonial reading of pain, aesthetics of illness, and representations of the male body.