BY Eddie Chambers in Opinion | 21 MAY 24
Featured in
Issue 243

Trophies of Truth and Myth: Donald Rodney’s ‘Doublethink’

On the occasion of the artist’s exhibition at Spike Island, his former collaborator dissects the 1992 sculptural installation

BY Eddie Chambers in Opinion | 21 MAY 24

In the early 1990s, Donald Rodney assembled a collection of more than 100 cheap sporting and academic trophies, such as those typically available in local shops, and displayed them on shelves that ran the length of the gallery wall in purpose-made glazed and mirrored cabinets. The trophies were embellished with engraved plaques that represented half-truths and ‘half-lies’ about Black people’s history, culture, familial relationships and so on. These labels – featuring both upper- and lower-case type – had pronounced sociological resonances, as if the reader was encountering certifiable ‘truths’ as much as they might be encountering questionable myths, caricatures and prejudices related to Black people. Titled Doublethink (1992), this formidable work made for uncomfortable viewing, on account of the grotesque caricatures and pathologies communicated in the plaques.

The work’s strengths lay in the articulations of prejudices that few would ever confess to holding.

The use of trophies (predominantly associated, of course, with sporting prowess and success) was an artistic stroke of genius by Rodney. The work carried resonances that the trophies were the bequest of Black people in general, rather than tokens of supposed merit awarded to distinct individuals. Doublethink caustically embodied and communicated the near-primeval, indelible belief, pathology and presumption that Black people were far more physical than they were intellectual; that they were gifted sportspeople or dancers to an infinitely greater degree than they were capable of higher learning or tasks that required intellectual application. Other artists had made work that referenced or challenged these dreadful caricatures, but Doublethink was all the more powerful, in large part on account of the notable absence of the visualized Black body and the ways in which the work’s strengths lay in the uncomfortable articulations of deep-rooted prejudices that few would ever openly confess to holding.

Donald Rodney, Doublethink (detail), 1992, shelves with trophies and labelled plaques. Courtesy: Estate of Donald Rodney

A prolific reader, Rodney drew on a broad range of literary references. As such, Doublethink’s primary association is with George Orwell’s celebrated novel of a dystopian future, 1984 (1949), in which the reader is introduced to the concept of ‘doublethink’ or ‘the acceptance of or mental capacity to accept contrary opinions or beliefs at the same time, especially as a result of political indoctrination’. Rodney’s Doublethink was, in many respects, an articulation of this indoctrination – this cultural or societal process of teaching a person or a group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically. And, given that sport is an absolute and ongoing embodiment of no end of matters related to race and racism, his intuition has proven to be entirely justified.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 243 with the headline ‘Winner Takes It All’

Donald Rodney’s ‘Visceral Canker’ will be on view at Spike Island from 25 May until 8 September

Main image: Donald Rodney, Doublethink, 1992, installation view, ‘Trophies of Empire’, 1992–93. Courtesy: Estate of Donald Rodney

Eddie Chambers is the David Bruton, Jr. Centennial Professor in Art History at the University of Texas, USA. He is the editor of the forthcoming Routledge Companion to African Diaspora Art History.