This exhibition centres on and showcases an exemplary art-science collaboration. It features the screening of Helen’s documentary A Brush with Immortality which narrates the story of Henrietta Lacks, her family and her posthumous contribution to medical science. Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951 at the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Just before her death, a sample of her cancerous cells was taken and developed into the first immortal human cell line to be used in medical research. Known as HeLa, this cell line has since been involved in many scientific advances, including the development of the first polio vaccine by Jonas Salk.
Henrietta, an impoverished African-American woman from Clover, Virginia, unknowingly donated her cancerous tissue for research purposes. While pharmaceutical companies have profited from their use of HeLa, the Lacks family have struggled with access to basic healthcare and remained unaware of Henrietta’s contribution for some twenty years after her death.
Helen has been interested in and researching this story for 17 years. In 2010 Helen met and began collaborating with the Lacks family to make visible the image of a woman who unknowingly had an incredible impact on medical history. Helen’s mission is to bring this story to public attention through a series of vibrant portraits of Henrietta, her children and grandchildren.
By doing so, she aims to highlight the injustices they have suffered over the decades following the exploitation of HeLa cells by the medical community.
The film portrays Helen’s interviews with Lacks family members and interweaves scientific perspectives into the HeLa story through interviews with cell biologists Professor Craig McArdle, Professor Harry Mellor and Dr Jon Lane from Bristol University. We learn of HeLa’s wide applications in medical research, for example testing toxicity of chemicals, understanding viral infections, genetics, IVF, cancer treatments and the aforementioned polio vaccine.
The exhibition and documentary provide edifying and inspiring insights into the history of Henrietta Lacks, the plight of the Lacks family, the impact of HeLa cells on medical science, how science and art can work together to enhance public understanding of research and the minefield of ethical concerns surrounding human tissue donation and anonymity.
Helen received no funding for this project she is donating all the portraits to the Lacks family.
Effects of magnetic field gradient and nanoparticle loading on cell response. An array is shown of tiled cropped images of cells subject to increasing nanoparticle dose and magnetic field gradient. Cells were stained for actin (green), nanoparticles (blue) and DNA (cyan).
Making Sense: A Rwandan Story
Making Sense: A Rwandan Story is a collaborative project and exhibition, inspired by a visit the artist Helen Wilson-Roe made to Rwanda in 2002. At its heart are twelve large-scale paintings, which together tell a powerful and moving story of personal dignity, courage and survival. Helen Wilson has been painting images of Rwanda since the 1994 genocide, which claimed the lives of over a million people in 100 days. Having now met survivors and visited the genocide sites, she has produced new works that show both the beauty of Rwanda and the resilience of its people in the face of a massive human tragedy.
"Trying to make sense of what happened in Rwanda has been at the heart of my work for nearly a decade. I want to express through this project as much as possible about Rwanda as it is today - the beauty and the tragedy, and the dignity and grace of its people in the aftermath of the genocide. I am not a politician or a journalist, but I can paint. That's my communication tool. I want to represent what I saw clearly and accurately, to offer understanding and hope for the future" Helen Wilson-Roe
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda claimed the lives of over a million people in 100 days. Nearly ten years on the human truths behind the horror are still being revealed. A desire to learn more about what happened in Rwanda led artist Helen Wilson to travel there in 2002 to meet survivors and to visit genocide sites. Her visit has inspired a series of new paintings, which together tell a powerful and moving story of human courage and survival, capturing both the beauty of Rwanda and the resilience of its people in the face of a massive human tragedy.
Fergal Keane, the distinguished news correspondent and writer who has reported on and written extensively about Rwanda over the last decade, introduces the catalogue.
The exhibition is accompanied by a documentary film about the artist's work on this project produced by award-winning cameraman Mike Fox and BBC director Kate Broome, who have previously made television programmers together in Rwanda.
This painting is based on a still from the feature film "100 Days',' directed by Nick Hughes. I saw the still in the East African newspaper I bought when I arrived in Rwanda. The image I have painted sums up the horror I felt when coming back from the genocide sites. The particular act of killing shown in the picture took place in Nyamata Church, where 20,000 people died. The brush strokes and colors suggest extreme violence, and I wanted to capture the sheer hell and inhumanity of what went on. I did not witness the genocide, I witnessed its aftermath. However, visiting the church gave me a sense of the wanton destruction of human Iife. The painting has three elements. Firstly, the madness of the violence that we see in the frenzied killing on the left of the picture. We cannot see clearly what is depicted, but we see the machete raised and know that people are being murdered. Secondly, the two figures on the right hand side represent people who watched their families being slaughtered, some of whom had to participate in the killing. The third element is the specter-like figure in the background, which represents the world watching and knowing what is going on, but choosing to do nothing.
When I visited Ntamara Church, where 5000 died, there was a corrugated iron and bamboo shed next to the church. The sun had come out and I wanted to get away from the heat and smell of death. The shed was dark inside. By the time my eyes adjusted to the light I noticed that there were skulls laid out in a particular order on a table. A couple of the skulls still had hair and one had a wrap around it. They were mostly baby skulls and many had deep machete marks and bullet holes in them. Some skulls were cut in half. I was very upset by what I saw in the shed, but the sunlight was shining through the bamboo at the back of the shed. I realized that the beauty of Rwanda could shine through even in a place as horrible as this shed.
This is the first positive image of Rwanda that I painted. It took me a long time to reach this point. The painting shows some of the orphans I stayed with in Kigali. It shows them painting on the day after I visited the genocide sites. The children wanted to cheer me up, and I have chosen a palette of primary colours to capture the brightness of that day. The images they painted were beautiful, and none of them referenced the genocide. The children painted such things as flowers, hills, houses, cattle, birds, computers, trucks, and basketball players. I did not tell them what to paint. They painted the things that are important to them. The day showed me that although these children are a direct result of the genocide (and many of their mothers had been raped and died in childbirth) they are simply getting on with their lives. The children just wanted to be themselves and they painted for hours, some from the morning right into the night.
This painting is based on a woman I met in the AVFGA village of Kimironko. There were twenty women in the room. This woman's eyes caught my attention. Her expression did not change and her eyes told a very tragic story. She told me that she had been raped and lost seven children. The woman had AIDS and was waiting to die. She said that she was looking forward to dying and joining her family. She believed that she would be re-united with her children. The child in the painting is not her son (I did not have a picture of him). The image is inspired by a photograph in Gilles Peeress' book The Silence of a dead child covered with lime lying on a rubbish dump. Although the woman is not looking at the child, there is a connection between the two.
This painting is of a boy called Christian, who became a friend of mine in Rwanda. I met his adopted mother and brothers in Kigali. He represents the teenagers of Rwanda, who embody hope for the country's future. When I photographed Christian in front of a banana tree, the broad leaves looked like angel's wings attached to his body. In the background I have painted Lake Kivu, which is beautiful and seemed as wide as an ocean. This painting represents the spirit of Rwanda, and its living beauty.
This painting is based on a story that Andrew told me on the way to a genocide site. We were standing on a bridge over a river. Andrew and other survivors stood on this bridge during the genocide and watched hundreds of bodies float down. They were trying to identify relatives and friends amongst the bloated corpses. Some survivors tried to pull bodies out and were attacked by the Nile crocodiles, which it is believed benefited from the many bodies that were tossed into the river. The crocodiles had every right to be there, the bodies should never have been in the water. The painting is about recovering the dignity of the Rwanda people who died in this river. I have painted the bodies intact, and tried to capture their buoyancy and the beauty of their movement through the water. This is how I like to imagine the people, not lifeless and bloated.
To me, this is one of the most powerful paintings in the series. I wanted to paint more of the women I met, all of whom had AIDS and eight years on were still dying. I decided to paint just four of the women, much larger than life. These women live with the memories of watching their loved ones, children and grandchildren being raped and killed in the genocide and the sense of loss makes it hard for them to go on living. The woman on the right is 92 years old and lost eleven children and grandchildren. Only one of the women is looking directly at us from the painting, as if judging the world for standing by and doing nothing to avert the tragedy. The AVEGA women wanted me to paint their stories as large as I could so the world would not forget
I wanted to show the unconditional love and mutual support between two women who experienced extreme trauma and physical degradation. Rape was used as a weapon and AIDS remains a bitter legacy of the genocide. Such experiences are difficult to put into words.
The last painting made after visiting Esther Mujawayo and her family in Germany.
Esther saw the exhibition catalogue and contacted me. I had wanted to meet her for many years. The picture represents a new beginning for the Rwandan people-Esther reflecting the tragic past, her daughters the brighter future.
I wanted to paint an uplifting portrait of Jackie. She told me the tragic story of what happened to her and her sister during the genocide, and she bore a terrible burden of guilt. I have very happy memories of the day we went to Lake Kivu, and I have tried to capture her beauty and strength, illuminated by the warm sunlight shining through the trees
Marlon Thomas was 18 when a gang of fairground workers viciously attacked him in 1994 on Durdham Downs in the Clifton area of Bristol. It was a racist attack. Four of the youths, including the fair owner’s son, were found guilty of causing grievous bodily harm - but they were out within a year.
Now in his thirties, Marlon is in what doctors describe as “in a waking coma”. He is severely disabled and can only communicate by blinking his eye once for “yes” and twice for “no”. Marlon needs round the clock care from his family and a team of nurses. His brother, Leroy, said: “We know that he is aware of his whole surroundings.”
The painting shows the great strength and love Leroy - and other family members - have maintained over the years. It also lists the many street and house names that are associated with Bristol’s slave trade history - Bristol’s legacy. After the attack, the fair was banned from operating on Durdham Downs but this has now been lifted by Bristol City Council. The fair is now back on the Downs but under a different name.
The paintings symbolise the million’s of enslaved people whose lives were lost during the journey from Africa to Europe. Many of our people were thrown overboard to the waiting sharks or left to drown in the sea. It is not difficult to imagine why death with the sharks at the bottom of the sea, would be more welcome than life on a slave plantation. To the mind of the Africans on these ships, death would be more welcome than any infringement on his or hers dignity and honour.
Let this painting stand as a permanent reminder that every human being has an inherent right to life and liberty.
I have tried to catch the innocence of youth by painting my youngest son. He was only eight years old when I painted this picture whilst on holiday in St. Lucia. He was waiting for the fish to come and greet him, while his older brother swam off into the distance. This became a little ritual we did each morning while staying on the beautiful island.
Empress Tabia was also known as Thelma or Bab’s Gilling to many who knew her in Bristol and Trowbridge, I knew her as Bab’s and recognized her strength within the Rastafarian community. Sadly Bab’s passed away this July leaving behind her legacy of beautiful strong children.
“Black Queen of Beauty, Thou Hast Given Colour to the World” Marcus Garvey