By Luke Naessens
PhD Candidate, Princeton University and Art Hx Graduate Research Assistant
In this photograph, the British artist Donald Rodney holds a tiny house made of skin in his open palm. The house is an artwork in its own right, titled My Mother. My Father. My Sister. My Brother. Impossibly fragile, the structure is held together with a single pin.
At the time of this work, Rodney was in hospital seeking treatment for the effects of sickle-cell anemia, a chronic and painful condition which caused his death a year later. The skin he used to make this miniature house was removed from his own body during a surgical treatment.
Sickle-cell disease is caused by the presence of sickle-shaped red blood cells which cause a range of serious health problems. For a child to have sickle-cell disease, they must inherit one sickle-cell gene from each parent.
First diagnosed in the United States in the 1920s, sickle-cell disease was initially thought to be exclusive to Black patients. It became part of a long history of medical conditions marshaled by enslavers, scientists, and colonial governments to legitimize the concept of racial difference as biological fact. In the US and the UK, sickle-cell disease is most common among Black communities, but it does not map so easily onto preexisting racial categories. The genes which cause it are found among people whose genetic ancestry is linked to Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and South Asia. The association of sickle-cell disease and Blackness, however, has informed the way it is diagnosed and treated, and it has acted as a flashpoint for debates about structural racism and medical inequities.
In the 1990s, scientific and public knowledge of genetics was rapidly increasing. Genetic science raises fundamental questions. How much of what we are today is shaped by what came before us? What is the significance of genes, skin, and blood, and how does this impact identity?
Rodney’s photograph is in part a memorial to the artist’s father, who emigrated from Jamaica in the 1950s. The vast migration of people to Britain from its colonies after World War II was one consequence of British colonialism in the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia. Another was the racism and economic exploitation that confronted them on arrival. Rodney’s work used medical imagery to examine the ways colonial histories continue to do harm to people and societies in the present.
The question of inheritance—genetic, social, political—lies at the heart of In the House of My Father. The “house” is literally a product of the artist’s own body suffering the effects of a hereditary illness. It also suggests the inherited racist structures that unevenly distribute access to a healthy life. Finally, it alludes to the everyday lives of the people, like Rodney’s own family, who tenaciously survive these legacies of colonialism.
Eddie Chambers, “His Catechism: The Art of Donald Rodney,” Third Text 12, no. 44 (1998): 43–54.
Eddie Chambers, Black Artists in British Art: A History since the 1950s (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2014).
Jareh Das, “Illness as Metaphor: Donald Rodney’s X-Ray Photographs,” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 45 (November 2019): 88–98.
Melbourne Tapper, “Interrogating Bodies: Medico-Racial Knowledge, Politics, and the Study of a Disease,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37, no. 1 (January 1995): 76–93.
Keith Wailoo, Drawing Blood: Technology and Disease Identity in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999).
Keith Wailoo, “Sickle Cell Disease—A History of Progress and Peril,” The New England Journal of Medicine 376 (March 2017): 805–807.