Donald Rodney and Luke Fowler: Recent Acquisitions and Commissions in the West Midlands

Two of the region’s best-loved galleries have been working hard to acquire and commission artworks from some of the most significant and influential contemporary British artists.‘The Land of Milk and Honey II’ (1997) by Donald Rodney, which was shown at Birmingham Museums’ Waterhall Gallery at the end of last year as part of ‘STATIC: Still Life Reconsidered’ has been acquired by the Birmingham Museums Trust with the help of the artist’s estate and the Contemporary Art Society. The sculpture was originally made for ‘Nine Night in Eldorado,’ Rodney’s last exhibition, which was held at the South London Gallery in 1997.

Rodney (1961-1998) was born in Birmingham to a family who had emigrated from Jamaica. Issues of race continued to significant throughout his life and work. He lived on Marshall Street in Smethwick, whose residents eventually successfully lobbied the council to ban black families from living in the road. He has recounted stories of his family being made to feel unwelcome in church, so much so that his and other black families began to hire out their own halls for worship. Rodney suffered with sickle cell anaemia his whole life and spent much time in hospital as a child, trying to understand his experiences and grapple with his identity through hours spent reading comics and drawing. He later went on to study art in Bournville in Birmingham and in Nottingham, and became one of the founding members of the seminal BLK Art Group. The group, made up of British African-Caribbean artists based in the Midlands, sought to challenge dominant views on race, gender, community and identity through their work during the 1980s in particular.

Land of Milk and Honey II by Donald Rodney.
Donald Rodney, The Land of Milk and Honey II (1997)

‘The Land of Milk and Honey II,’ like many of his pieces, is rooted in Rodney’s personal experiences of illness and race. The sculpture incorporates copper one and two pence pieces suspended in milk, while the title refers to the view of Britain in the 1950s as a place of hope and opportunity to families emigrating from the Caribbean and other places. The glass vitrine enables the viewer to see the chemical reactions between the two substances, and the extraordinary textural and colour variations created. Although the work was made in tribute to his late father, it has taken on renewed significance since Rodney himself passed away in 1998 at the age of 36.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery, meanwhile, has been working alongside The Hepworth Wakefield and Film and Video Umbrella to commission and co-acquire new work by Luke Fowler. The group were awarded the Contemporary Art Society Annual Award for Museums: commission to collect. The resulting work is Fowler’s film ‘The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott’ (2012) which now resides jointly in the permanent collections of the two galleries.

Shown most recently at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the film explores the life of the historian, activist and critic E.P. Thompson in the post-war period and his influence in the cultural arena during this time. Fowler’s work combines archival footage with newly shot film to uncover the ways that Thompson gave miners, factory workers and unemployed people in Yorkshire classes in history and literature through the Workers’ Education Association (WEA), a subject with contemporary resonance given changes to the cost of and access to higher education in Britain today.

Luke Fowler image

Luke Fowler, The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott, (2012). Image courtesy Film and Video Umbrella.

Fowler, who lives and works in Glasgow, has a particular interest in biography and documentary-making. He explores personal and political subjects by adopting the roles of artist, historian, curator, archivist and film-maker simultaneously to produce works that are critically acclaimed. Fowler describes his films as modes of enquiry, as means to answer questions that engage him. The resulting films, the artist notes, are partially self-portraits, ways of trying to understand both himself and the world around him. Notably, Fowler was one of the four artists shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2012, alongside Elizabeth Price, Spartacus Chetwynd and Paul Noble.

A short clip of Fowler’s film can be seen on Film and Video Umbrella’s website.

First published by New Art WM, 30 January 2015

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