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New Tate piece explores artist’s connection to the enslaved

27 February 2014 by Felicity

Image of Visceral Canker by Donald Rodney

Donald Rodney Visceral Canker 1990 © The estate of Donald Rodney

A new exhibition titled  Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain opens at Tate Liverpool tomorrow. One of the key pieces in the exhibition tells the story of Britain’s involvement with the slave trade in a striking, visual form. Here’s Emma Palmer (Marketing Assistant at Tate Liverpool) and Hazel Atashroo (PhD student, Cultural Studies, University of Southampton) to tell us more:

Keywords is an exhibition concerned with changing use of language and social attitudes, focusing on British art from the 1980s.   An undeniably tumultuous decade in Britain, the 1980s were marked by many forms of oppositional politics which had a direct impact on culture. At this time many artists and writers were also reflecting upon Britain’s colonial past, and challenging the prejudiced views that survived in the media and other British institutions.

A key piece on display in Keywords will be Visceral Canker by artist Donald Rodney, which highlights the still ongoing issues surrounding the British involvement with the slave trade.

Visceral Canker consists of two wooden wall plaques displaying heraldic images, each linked to a system of tubes and electrical pumps which circulate imitation blood, of the kind used for medical demonstrations.  The ‘blood’ connects the coats of arms of John Hawkins, the first slave trader to sail from Plymouth, to the coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1567, Hawkins was granted the use of a large ship of Elizabeth’s fleet, for the purpose of enslaving Africans to sell in the Spanish colonies.

Rodney had originally wanted to viscerally demonstrate his connection to the enslaved Black men depicted on Hawkins’ coat of arms by pumping his own blood through the work. However, when this was first exhibited in Plymouth in 1990, the local council prohibited him from doing so, and false blood was substituted.

Heraldry is used by Rodney because it was a visual form of language, historically symbolising social rank. Rodney brings to our attention to how slavery became part of this institutional language. While Visceral Canker refers particularly to Plymouth, it is fitting that it should be displayed in Liverpool, another major centre of transatlantic slavery.

Through Visceral Canker, Rodney reminds us that Britain’s role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade is not finished history, but viscerally and permanently connected to people’s lives in the present.

Rodney was a British artist born in Birmingham, of Jamaican parentage, who died from sickle cell anaemia in 1998, aged only 36.  His work reflected a range of themes including cultural history, racial stereotypes, illness, religion and the family.  Rodney was a central member of a group of politically active Black British artists during the 1980s who channelled their creativity into addressing racism in society.”

Keywords runs at Tate Liverpool from 28 February to 11 May, tickets are available to book now.

Find out more about Britain’s role in the slave trade by visiting the International Slavery Museum (free entry), just across from Tate Liverpool at the Albert Dock.

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