Helen Wilson-Roe in her studio at Mivart Street Studios Bristol 2003


Helen Wilson-Roe in her studio at Mivart Street Studios Bristol 2003

Helen Wilson-Roe is a black/dual heritage, working class, self-taught artist from Bristol. Her principal medium is figurative painting (in oils).

Helen’s work addresses social and cultural issues. She demonstrates an integrity and social-political awareness.

She started painting fairly late in her life (her thirties) after seeing an image on the television in 1994, at the time she was a single mum living in Easton, the inner city of Bristol. An image of the Rwandan genocide was broadcast on the television, which compelled Helen to learn more about the circumstances – initially to educate her children, but later to raise awareness of the tragedy that went untold. This led Helen to recognise that her communication tool was her paintbrush.

In 2002, with very little funding, Helen travelled alone to Rwanda. She met survivors and visited massacre sites. The people she met and the sights she saw were the inspiration behind thirteen large-scale oil paintings that she painted on her return. They tell a powerful story of personal dignity, courage and survival. Many of the stories that she heard were too traumatic to describe or even paint, but through her use of colour – representing the beauty of Rwanda and its people – Helen communicates the stories in a way that is accessible and moving.

Helen’s aim in the exhibition was to explore reconciliation and education in areas of conflict and division. Using the experience of the Rwandan nation seeking to heal itself and reconcile internal divisions after genocide, Making Sense: A Rwandan Story is a stimulus for debate and learning – enabling exhibition visitors, both young and old, to explore various perspectives on conflict resolution and peace building.

The Making Sense exhibition was Helen’s first solo exhibition and also the first exhibition in the UK of oil paintings based on the Rwandan genocide. She gifted the Making Sense paintings to the Embassy of Rwanda / London 2006. The Embassy have arranged for the paintings to be taken to Rwanda to stay permanently.

Helen’s work in progress Our True Legacy includes paintings such as Blink Once for Yes and Twice for No are powerful provocative studies of seemingly ordinary people who have had an extraordinary impact on their community. The individuals Helen chose to paint have shown tremendous strength, dignity and courage. They have quietly drawn attention to important causes, or helped others within their community to achieve their true potential against all odds.

Helen's work therefore highlights the people within our communities who are raising awareness of the deep issues such as racism, ethnic profiling and the criminalising of innocent black men and children. 

Helen’s inspiration for the people that she paints is through her belief that community figures are not accurately represented. Some established institutions like the media, local and national government, appear to caricature & character assassinate cultural leaders. She feels that introducing community representatives who seem more intent on posturing and playing the political game as well as furthering their own ambitions appears to have a damaging effect upon the community, and especially the young people, rather than meeting any of their needs from a cultural point of view.  

Helen’s aim is for Black people, and importantly Black children to be able to walk into galleries anywhere in the world and see that there are different stories about African cultures and the people who arrived in Europe, North & South America via the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Her hope is for them to be able to identify with the paintings in a positive way, and for them to walk away with a sense of cultural pride.