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Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine

Artist
Kadir Nelson, born 1974
Sitter
Henrietta Lacks, 1920 - 1951
Date
2017
Type
Painting
Medium
Oil on linen
Dimensions
Frame (from incoming condition report): 201.9 × 176.5 × 12.7 cm (79 1/2 × 69 1/2 × 5")
Sight: 151.1 × 125.7 cm (59 1/2 × 49 1/2")
Credit Line
Collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History & Culture; gift from Kadir Nelson and the JKBN Group, LLC
Restrictions & Rights
© 2017 Kadir Nelson
Object number
NPG.2018.9
Culture
Henrietta Lacks: American\African American
Exhibition Label
Born Roanoke, Virginia
Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer at age thirty-one. Upon her death, doctors discovered that cells from her body lived long lives and reproduced indefinitely in petri dishes. These “immortal” HeLa cells have since contributed to over 10,000 medical patents relating to polio, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions. Considering the history of medical testing on African Americans without their consent, the fate of Lacks’s cells raises questions about ethics, privacy, and race. By addressing these issues forthrightly in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010), author Rebecca Skloot prompted Oprah Winfrey and HBO to make a film on the subject. Award-winning artist, author, and illustrator Kadir Nelson uses visual elements to convey Lacks’s legacy. The wallpaper features the “Flower of Life,” a symbol of immortality. The pattern of her dress recalls cellular structures, and the garment’s missing buttons signal the absence of those cells that were taken from her body, without permission.
Nacida en Roanoke, Virginia
Henrietta Lacks murió de cáncer cervical a los treinta y un años de edad. A su muerte, los médicos descubrieron que las células de su cuerpo vivían una vida larga y se reproducían indefinidamente en placas de Petri. Estas células HeLa “inmortales” han contribuido desde entonces a más de 10,000 patentes médicas relacionadas con la poliomielitis, el sida, el párkinson y otras enfermedades. Teniendo en cuenta la historia de pruebas médicas realizadas en afroamericanos sin su consentimiento, el destino de las células de Lacks plantea cuestiones acerca de la ética, la privacidad y la raza. Al abordar estas cuestiones con franqueza en La vida inmortal de Henrietta Lacks (2010), la autora Rebecca Skloot dio pie a una película de Oprah Winfrey y HBO sobre el tema. Kadir Nelson, artista, autor e ilustrador galardonado, utiliza elementos visuales para transmitir su legado. El papel pintado presenta la “Flor de la vida”, símbolo de la inmortalidad. El patrón de su vestido recuerda a las estructuras celulares y los botones que le faltan al atuendo señalan la ausencia de aquellas células que fueron tomadas de su cuerpo sin permiso.
Provenance
The artist; gift to NPG 2018
Data Source
National Portrait Gallery
See more items in
National Portrait Gallery Collection