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Henrietta Lacks

Searching for the likeness of Ms. Henrietta Lacks.
Ms. Henrietta Lacks (detail)

In 1951, a 31-year old African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks passed away of cervical cancer.  Outlived by her children, she was also outlived by her biopsy, which originated the first immortal human cell line, HeLa.  HeLa cells have since revolutionized medicine and been key to such achievements as the polio and HPV vaccines.


For all the immortality that science gave or found in HeLa cells, Henrietta Lacks left less of a mark of her passing than many non-famous people do.  Her grave lay unmarked until 2010 when the Committee for the Recognition of the Immortal Life of HeLa, led by the tireless efforts of Dr. Rolland Patillo, and the Lacks family, was able to remedy that.  In a digital age where every phone is a camera and a photo once uploaded is likely to outlast us all, it’s hard to remember that not that long ago, photography was not immediately accessible, even less so to those with less means.  Only two, worn photographs of Henrietta Lacks survive.  


Faces are so important to the human animal.  We are hard wired to recognize faces from the moment we are born.  They are so important that I focus a lot of my work on examining our identity without using faces to look for insights we might be missing otherwise.  When it came to Henrietta Lacks though, I realized that was specifically what we are missing.


I am basing the portraits on the image of Ms. Henrietta standing by a wall and making a series of portraits, not just one, because there is a limit to what can be known for certain.  The two photos are damaged and blurry, so each reconstruction is slightly different. The exercise of repetition exercise emphasizes this limit and echoes the millions of replications of the HeLa cells and of the photos themselves.  It parallels also that the act of remembering introduces variation.  There is a limit to what can be remembered.


In Henrietta Lacks no.3 (detail above), only minimal edges and fills were added to the transfer to maintain the incompleteness of the portrait; an impression of the unique if transient constellation of atoms, cells, memory and heart that was called Henrietta Lacks.





I had been working on works around  HeLa cells in 2006, using microscopic imagery gathered from laboratories across the country (the cells’ portraits?).  The resulting works explore the emerging identity(-ies) of the HeLa cell lines by focusing on the skeleton of the cells.  Since the skeleton is dynamically formed and fragmented as the cell, moves, grasps and interacts with its environment and neighboring cells, I think it’s a window into the cell’s decision-making or intention.  An expression of self.


In the two projects, I looked for meaningful boundaries in and between the individual cells or individual pixels, and found myself valuing not a particular identity, mine, Henrietta or the individual cells, but the persistence of a form or fill, the persistence of a type of organization, always on the edge of chaos, of non-being at all.  For me, studying the history and science of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells drives home the strange relationship between the person and their body,  the relationship between the transient, multiple whole that is the person and its parts, in this brave new world where parts may live on when the whole does not.



Presented at the 18th Annual HeLa Women's Health conference, at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta on September 13th, 2013, with the talk "Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells: an artist's perspective on multiplicity and continuity." Also presented at Open Books, Open Minds at Rhode Island College, with the talk "An art study of Henrietta Lacks and the Hela cell line," April 2013.


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