Photo credit: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images
The National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) are remembering the immortal legacy of Henrietta Lacks with an installation of Kadir Nelson's 2017 portrait of her. According to the NMAAHC, "The portrait was jointly acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture as a gift from Nelson and the JKBN Group LLC, and will be shared by the two museums."
In 1951, Lacks unknowingly became a medical pioneer when doctors took cells from her body without permission. The stolen research cells (taken during a biopsy before she died of cervical cancer that same year at age 31) were named HeLa, and went on to contribute to multiple medical breakthroughs such as: cloning, polio vaccine, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and much more.
"It is fitting that Henrietta Lacks be honored at two Smithsonian museums, as each approaches American history from unique and complementary perspectives,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery. “Lacks’ story presents moral and philosophical questions around issues of consent, racial inequalities, the role of women, medical research and privacy laws, providing rich platforms for historical understanding and public dialogue."
@smithsoniannpg is proud to share this @kadirnelson portrait of Henrietta Lacks with the @nmaahc The painting was a gift from the artist and the JKBN Group LLC and will be installed on May 15, 2018 on the museum’s presentation wall. The striking posthumous portrait was inspired by two surviving photographs that are now in the possession of her family. Commissioned by HBO on the occasion of the HBO movie premiere of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, Nelson wrote of the portrait, “I elected to paint a prideful and glowing portrait of Henrietta Lacks, who is often referred to as, ‘The Mother of Modern Medicine,’ visually juxtaposing art and science. She stands with her beautifully manicured hands crossed, covering her womb (the birthplace of the immortal cell line) while cradling her beloved Bible (a symbol of her strong faith). Her deep red dress is covered with a vibrant floral pattern that recalls images of cell structure and division.” Other symbolism includes her bright yellow hat, which functions as a halo, her pearls as a symbol of the cancer that took her life, and the repeated hexagonal wallpaper pattern, a design containing the “Flower of Life,” an ancient symbol of immortality and exponential growth. The buttons missing from her dress reference the cells that were taken from her body without her permission #myNPG #kadirnelson #henriettalacks #nmaahc
"The National Museum of African American History and Culture has always felt that the story of Henrietta Lacks is a significant and important moment that deserved greater recognition," said Lonnie Bunch, director of the National African American Museum of History and Culture.
Nelson, who was commissioned by HBO, said: "I elected to paint a prideful and glowing portrait of Henrietta Lacks, who is often referred to as, ‘The Mother of Modern Medicine,’ visually juxtaposing art and science. She stands with her beautifully manicured hands crossed, covering her womb (the birthplace of the immortal cell line) while cradling her beloved Bible (a symbol of her strong faith). Her deep red dress is covered with a vibrant floral pattern that recalls images of cell structure and division."
Nelson also used the wallpaper to convey the "Flower of Life," which is a symbol of immortality. The National Portrait Gallery is set to install the Henrietta Lacks portrait on May 15. It will be on display at the Portrait Gallery until November 4.