Paul Mendez, author, on In the House of My Father by Donald Rodney.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
PM The first time I ever saw it was in a show at the Barbican called The Surreal House back in 2010. I was working for a gay men’s lifestyle magazine at the time called Refresh, as editorial assistant, and I went to the press view. I had never seen a piece like it. It’s an artwork of an artwork if you like, so the house itself is an artwork and so is the picture of it in his hand.
GB Why did you choose the picture of it?
PM Because I saw this version first and it stuck in my memory. It was a really a shocking thing to see, especially when I read the wall text and saw that the house was made from his skin. I found out subsequently that he was a sickle cell anaemia sufferer. It worsened as he got older and affected his bones, and he had to have a series of hip replacements. He had both hips replaced at least once and on one particular occasion, he developed an abscess on one of his legs that, when it went down, left a lot of excess skin, which he just peeled off and it didn’t even hurt. When you look at his sketchbooks, the house motif and the motif of his parents, who were members of the Windrush generation, are recurrent over a period of years before he made this model. So we have this skin that he kept in a Filofax because he didn’t know what to do with it until eventually he pulled it together to make this house using just a bit of masking tape, and a pin to secure the folds. The house itself is called My Mother. My Father. My Sister. My Brother. But I think just seeing it sitting in the palm of his hand, I found really striking because we don’t see the black figure in art much. The palms of my hands were of great fascination to white kids when I was in primary school because they were kind of white and my fingernails were pink. But he has an almost yellow palm with deep lines and this house just sits in the palm of his hand, so you see the scale of the house and how delicate and exquisite it is. And the skin itself it kind of looks like it’s been roasted or something.
It was my first entry point to his work, and I subsequently found out that he was a member of BLK Art Group. They were founded in Wolverhampton in 1979 and I think he met Keith Piper, another member, at Nottingham Trent Polytechnic in 1982. He became sort of radicalised as a black thinker and artist. For me, it was a realization of my heritage, both racially and in terms of the region I grew up in. Being called In the House of My Father, it’s very full of meaning for me in terms of the shoddiness and delicate nature of the house. There’s also a reference to the George Lamming novel, In the Castle of My Skin, another one from the Windrush generation. It’s like the memories of home that we carry around with us that are fragile and never quite complete.
GB Would you expect someone else to find it beautiful?
PM It’s not ostensibly a beautiful thing. It’s quite a horrible thing to look at. But I was trying to think about what I find beautiful and it’s a difficult question for me, because, growing up as a minority figure in a white supremacist country, seeing a world that’s not been built for me, beauty is in the beholder of the white man. As someone who’s maturing and trying to decolonize my ideas generally, it was the first time I’d been challenged to think about what beauty is. Blackness contains so much history that can’t be considered beautiful, because of 400 years of slavery. Those things are intrinsically within us as people of Caribbean heritage, in our DNA, like the skin that makes the house. Then you can take it one of two ways; you can continue in the mindset of suffering, or you can see that we are here, we are alive, we have knowledge and we have experience and we have our own version of beauty that is aesthetically ours. And I think this piece embodies that. And especially since it’s taken from the black body after the way the black body is commodified and abused by others, for a black person to take their own skin and turn it into his fragile, delicate work of art, there’s a piece of artwork that has a legacy for future generations seeing and identifying with it. The more I think about it, the more it grows in importance to me.
GB Is beauty connected to sadness for you?
PM Beauty and trauma is a real axis for me. So many of my favourite songs, albums and works of art are based upon that axis. Francesca Woodman. Joy Division. Lemonade. There’s something about that minor key. And I think that’s what’s encapsulated in Donald’s piece. He was always conscious of the finiteness of his life. Incidentally, he was born on the exact same day as my mother, five miles away from where she grew up. So when Donald Rodney, and my mother, were three years old, the Smethwick Tory candidate for the general election in that year, ran under the slogan, “If you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Labour.” Imagine growing up in that environment, you know, with parents who’ve moved over from Jamaica, the dad works in a factory, the mum’s a health care worker, working all the hours God sends. People raised their children to be British subjects and have pride. And white supremacists want to vote for you and your kid to leave. So, despite the fact that he had this wonderful creative drive, there was always a deep trauma there and I think you can’t really have one without the other.
GB There’s a brutal reality to the way you write about sex.
PM I’m interested in truth and truth is often ugly. Sex is often ugly. The amount of books I read that are so literal about everything but when it comes to sex they’re suddenly metaphorical. You know, it’s about sights and about smells, especially with a voice like Jesse’s. He’s never been allowed to manifest his desires or act upon them at all. When he finally finds himself in that position of freedom, of course, he’s going to experience it in the most visceral, most immediate way. And this is my experience, you know, stressing that Rainbow Milk is fiction – but this is my experience and this is my voice. I’m not like anyone else; my intersection of queerness, blackness, being working class but living in a pretty much bourgeois way now, from the Black Country, not from London. You know, having studied acting, having been a Jehovah’s Witness and a sex worker, who else am I supposed to sound like? I have to just present things in my own way.
GB So has your perception of beauty changed a lot from when you were religious? What would you have chosen for Gilded Birds when you were a Jehovah’s Witness?
PM Flowers or a rainbow, or possibly an artist’s impression of paradise in really saturated colours, with people of various races, all in traditional costume, sharing a basket of fruit. In the background there might be a beautiful brook with flamingos and swans playing next to a lion, little children cavorting. When you’re in the industrial West Midlands during a recession in the mid-nineties, you’re broke, and your kids are hungry, and running about barefoot in the street, these Jehovah’s Witnesses come and knock on your door with this absolutely beautiful image on the cover of a book, for the disenfranchised that’s a very attractive thing. Then that is your idea of beauty, full stop.
Being disfellowshipped and having this idea of paradise snatched away from me, being betrayed by my family and the institution, that opened my eyes. I was drawn to things I’d been told I should avoid. That was part of my decision to become a sex worker. I needed to divest myself of the doctrine. I needed to shock myself, shake myself out of that mentality and start living in this world. Art was really important for me. I used to sit in the Rothko room at the Tate Modern on a Sunday. In those dark paintings, in that dark room, I saw my insights. I saw how I was feeling, I was able to look into myself. And recognising that that was what my insights look like, I was able to deal with what I was going through. When I saw Donald Rodney’s piece, it was just this inner recognition. I didn’t have to know anything about art to understand what was being communicated.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
PM Truth. Honesty. We tend to describe art in terms of artifice, traditionally. My favourite art is almost always photographic, encapsulating a moment in time and real people who aren’t playing up to the camera, who will give you the real truth of what that time was like. I love the triptych of observation, memory and imagination. That’s what feeds my work and I think all the best art does that: tells you something about history, about politics, about humanity. It just gives you the truth.