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Surface from Under the Microscope: The Henrietta Lacks Series

By Jeffrey Kent

September 30, 2019 - March 13, 2020

NAS Building, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W.

Free. Photo ID required.

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Baltimore-based artist Jeffrey Kent’s paintings are characterized by bold content and a thoughtful use of layered material and color. The works in this exhibition are inspired by the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American tobacco farmer who moved to Baltimore in 1941 from southern Virginia and died in 1951 of cervical cancer at the age of 31. Her cancer cells—taken months before she died without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, AIDS and Parkinson’s disease research, and more. Lacks’ cells, known as HeLa cells, have been bought and sold by the billions, yet for decades she remained virtually unknown and her family uncompensated.

Kent’s abstract paintings reference the contrast-phase microscopic imagery of HeLa cells to pay homage to the woman from whom they were derived. Inspired by the undulating shapes and forms of cellular structures, Kent playfully suggests that “they appear as celestial bodies floating in an atmospheric universe.” Yet, considering Lacks’ story and the history of medical testing on African Americans without their consent, the artist also intends to raise questions about medical ethics, patients’ rights, and race.

Jeffrey Kent is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice includes mixed media painting, sculpture, performance, and video. Using everything from paint, to water jugs, to books, Kent orchestrates visual perplexities that pose many questions to the viewer. His artworks are created in series as conceptual analyses of society and investigations into past decisions that affect present and future populations. The artworks are exposing and encouraging social discourse around topics that are often overlooked and uncomfortable. Born in Boston and based in Baltimore, Kent holds an MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore.

This exhibition was curated by Carol Rhodes Dyson.

Pictured: HeLa No. 1, 2017, acrylic on canvas, framed in oak, 32 x 32 inches.

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