Recently, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of African American History and Culture jointly acquired a painting of Henrietta Lacks, as portrayed by Kadir Nelson. Lacks died from cervical cancer at the age of 31, and her cells were subsequently studied and used over the past 60+ years. Lacks’s cells (named HeLa, for Henrietta Lacks) were instrumental in developing treatments for a variety of illnesses, such as polio, AIDS and Parkinson’s Disease.
I was familiar with Lacks’s story from many years back, as she was a Virginia native and never forgotten here, in her state of birth. Thus, I knew that I had to see the painting, titled “Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine”, for myself.
Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine, Kadir Nelson, oil on linen, 2017
Information card as displayed in the National Portrait Gallery
The painting is large and breathtaking: Lacks smiling sweetly and posed with her bible. Nelson incorporated some very special details that refer to Lacks’s legacy. As stated on the National Portrait Gallery press release:
“Commissioned by HBO, Nelson used visual elements to convey Lacks’ legacy. The wallpaper features the “Flower of Life,” a symbol of immortality; the flowers on her dress recall images of cell structures; and two missing buttons allude to the cells taken from her body without permission.”
Close up of the background, featuring the “Flower of Life”
Henrietta Lacks’s story raises issues surrounding ethics, right to patients’ genetic information, and privacy. The fact that she died but her cells made it possible for other people to live is heartbreaking, but what’s even more tragic is the fight that her family had to undertake to challenge the medical industry that used HeLa cells without Lacks’s, or her family’s, consent.
I’m so happy that Henrietta Lacks is being featured at the Smithsonian Museum and is taking her rightful place in American history. I really enjoyed seeing this beautiful portrait for myself, and I hope that you all get a chance to check it out, too! It will be at the National Portrait Gallery until November 4, 2018, and then it will be at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. You’ll be glad that you made the visit!