Artist’s Statement: Artist Helen Wilson-Roe has spent 16 years working with the family of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who passed away in the USA during the 1950s; her cells were taken without her permission and went on to contribute to a range of medical developments and vaccines, including genetics, cancer research, polio and IVF. The artwork is now on display at the Science Museum
“When I read Henrietta’s story, I was heartbroken that this woman went completely unrecognised at the time and that the family were exploited. It was the exploitation that drove me as an artist. I thought, ‘I really want to meet this family.’
© Karen Brett
I never let that go. I never thought I wasn’t going to meet the family. I just thought, ‘how do I meet them?’
I like to tell stories I believe our children would never have heard of and might not be documented in a way that should be accessible to them.
© The Family of Henrietta Lacks
I want them to grow up feeling a sense of pride that I didn’t really get. As a mixed-race child in predominantly white schools, I never heard any stories of black people who did well. I really want my kids to have access to these stories.
It wasn’t premeditated. I didn’t go to America thinking this is what I’m going to do. It just came from a discussion, a heated talk, with the family one evening.
It’s about the power of what you can do as an individual to make a difference in other people’s lives. You can give without having to give materialistically. You can give in other ways.
When I first saw the display case, I immediately thought, ‘right, we’re not going to get paintings in there, so it’s going to have to be something 3D.’
My challenge was getting a very big idea, a massive story with multi-layers, into a contained space.
I had to scale down instead of scaling up. That doesn’t work that well with me, being the kind of artist I am – my largeness wants to come out.
But constricting the space forced me to think of a different way of producing artwork, and I think it’s a really good way of challenging an artist.
I want visitors to come away with a sense that Henrietta somehow touched their lives.
© Helen Wilson-Roe
I want them to come away with a sense of history, that in the 1950s this is what could have happened to you if you were black and went to hospital with cancer.
This has opened up a lot of stories to me, some of which, in regard to discrimination and racism, I find very personal. How far have we actually come? I find it difficult to accept that it’s actually not that far.
I would love to spend a whole year just painting the Lacks family.
There are other things I want to paint too – not just portraits, but the experience, the various stories they’ve told me. And the cells.
This ‘small’ stage I’m going through - the portraiture - is going to be lovely. It’s kind of increasing my vision for massive, great big beautiful cells.”
- Exhibition runs until February 2014 in the Who Am I? gallery at the Science Museum, London. Suitable for all ages. Find out more.
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© Science Museum London
© Thomas Deerinck / Mark Ellisman, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, UCSD
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