Interview: Jazmine Sullivan & Kadir Nelson Bring Henrietta Lacks To Life With ‘The HeLa Project’ Exhibit

The creatives speak to VIBE about their artistic contributions in conjunction with HBO’s film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

To many, Henrietta Lacks is a hidden figure. Her spirit left the world in 1951, but her cells went on to advance modern science. From treatments of the polio vaccine, cloning and HIV research to the discovery of the Human Papilloma Virus, Lacks’ immortal cells are considered to be the biggest medical miracle of the last century. Her story will be told in the upcoming HBO film, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks, starring Oprah Winfrey, but last week the network created “The HeLa Project,” a traveling art exhibit telling Lacks’ story through touching artistic tributes.

READ HBO Sets A Date For The Premiere Of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

Kicking off in New York’s SoHo area April 7, VIBE was on site to view a stunning original portrait by Kadir Nelson, poetry by Saul Williams and a rendition of “Motherless Children” by Jazmine Sullivan. Other multimedia installations included art by Zoë Buckman, Doreen Garner and Tomashi Jackson.

HBO's The HeLa Project Exhibit For
CREDIT: Getty Images

Each piece makes sure to showcase Lacks’ story–one that many know little about. “I’m getting so much information and it’s cool. It keeps people interesting and wanting to learn more about Henrietta and her history,” Sullivan said. “I just learned about her two weeks ago and now that I’m here and going through the exhibit and reading everything, it’s truly amazing and crazy that I didn’t know about her because she was so important to life.”

READ Interview: Jazmine Sullivan On Owning Her Confidence & An Unbalanced Industry

HBO contacted the Grammy-nominated singer to flip “Motherless Children,” a negro spiritual made popular by the likes of blues great Blind Willie Johnson and Paul Robeson. After hearing a bluegrass version of the song, Sullivan decided to give it more of a gospel note, connecting it to what Lacks’ loved the most. “What I always want to capture is the soul,” she explained. “For this song in particular, I wanted to keep the music minimal so that you can hear it. The version I head was a blonde, bluegrass feel to it but the only thing I can liken it to was gospel. I grew up in a Baptist Church, so sometimes all you got is your foot and the clap, so you start singing [to] feel the spirit. That’s the vibe I try to bring the song and letting you hear the message.”

HBO's The HeLa Project Exhibit For
CREDIT: Getty Images

Sullivan’s mission mirrors Kadir Nelson’s thoughtful approach to his tribute to Lacks’–a portrait that presents her beauty, faith and everlasting hold on history. The Maryland native has made his own mark on the art world with pieces that strike conversations about black culture and livelihood. His portraits have been seen on the covers of Ebony and The New Yorker and infamous album covers like Drake’s Nothing Was The Same. His commissioned portrait titled, “Henrietta (HeLa) Lacks: The Mother Of Modern Medicine” brings Lacks to life. Her smile is genuine, and her floppy church hat acts as a halo. She clutches her Bible close to her pelvic area, representative of the site where her ovarian cancer began. These placements are far from accidental, Nelson explained.

HBO's The HeLa Project Exhibit For
CREDIT: Getty Images

“The painting is a juxtaposition of faith and science. Henrietta being a woman of faith, came from a very religious family,” he said. “After reading this book about Henrietta and her story (Rebecca Skloot’s New York Times Bestseller), she really described [who she was]. I wanted to not only share her being a religious person, but also being consumed by science. The background is an ancient symbol of immortality and cell divisions. It’s a repeated circular pattern that forms a hexagon and its an ancient symbol found on the walls of Egypt. It’s called the ‘Flower of Life,’ and it connects to the flowers on her dress which is pretty much in the same vain.”

Like Sullivan, Nelson was’t fully privy to the magic Lacks’ held in her possession. Through “The HeLa Project,” Nelson hopes others will be inspired and educated about the no longer hidden figure.

“It was good opportunity to learn more about her story and to celebrate her life,” he said. “Life is full of stories and drama—particularly African American stories. I like to tell that story and it’s great to see work like this, mine or not, in a place where people can see it. HBO has really put forth that opportunity for people to see it on a larger scale, through film and and through this exhibit. Art’s highest function is a reflection of the human soul, the human spirit and it has the power to inspire and teach people to just be that reflection. You can see yourself in so many different ways though art. I’ve always known that and felt that and I always wanted to create artwork that did that specifically. Not just to create a picture on the wall for me, but to others who want to learn, too.”

Before the film’s release on HBO April 22, the exhibit will travel to Atlanta, on April 13 through April 16 at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights & Culture.