Through June 28 

Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill

Henrietta Lacks died nearly seventy years ago, but some people say that she lives to this day. 

No, this isn’t a ghost story, but it is a story about a kind of immortality. It’s also the subject of Project LHAXX, a polyglot exhibit at the Ackland Art Museum. 

Lacks, a 31-year-old mother of five, was treated at The Johns Hopkins Hospital for cervical cancer, which took her life in 1951. For years, George Gey, a cancer and virus researcher, had been collecting cells from biopsies of cervical cancer patients. Lacks was the first person whose cells did not die in the lab. Instead, they doubled every twenty to twenty-four hours. 

Her name survives in her “immortal cell line,” which is called HeLa. It played a significant part in the development of the polio vaccine and is still used to study the effects of new treatments on cancer cells without experimenting on humans. 

But Lacks’s story is inseparable from issues of consent, ownership, and the troubling history of medical experimentation on black bodies. Gey took her cells without her or her family’s knowledge, which was standard procedure. Lacks’s family didn’t know her cells had been critically important to medical research until the mid-1970s. The cells have created a billion-dollar industry; at least 11,000 patents contain them. But her children have not, and likely will never, benefit financially from their mother’s genetic material. 

Lacks’s story is part of the inspiration behind Project LHAXX, a site-specific installation in the Ackland’s ART& community space. It was created by Charlotte visual artists Marcus Kiser and Jason Woodberry and Durham performance artist Quentin Talley, collaborating as Intergalactic Soul. They approached Lacks’s story through an Afrofuturist lens.

“Afrofuturism is about preserving Black spaces in the future,” Kiser says. “It’s the idea of preserving the culture and making sure that we still have a voice—that we’re still heard, and we’re controlling our own narrative.”

The mixed-media installation fills an entire gallery wall. Indecipherable gold glyphs are striking against a black background with elliptical, sculptural neon lights at the center. The lights represent stars Sirius A and B and the Dogon people of Mali, who knew about the white dwarf Sirius B centuries before it was recognized by nineteenth-century astronomers. A “cosmic message,” accessible via the free augmented reality app Artivive, accompanies the installation.

Woodberry calls the mysterious markings “hieroglyphs from future ancestors”—evidence of survival. He says he was compelled to develop them because he realized that “African Americans are the only people in this country without a native language.” 

The glyphs are inspired by languages from the regions of Woodberry’s ancestry, including Nyo, from West Africa, and early forms of Irish. Kiser, Woodberry, and Talley were also inspired by Alisha Wormsley’s evolving project There Are Black People in the Future, an exhibition they saw years ago in Charlotte.

Lacks’s influence for the installation is evident in more than one way. Woodberry explains that two years ago, many of the glyphs didn’t exist, and some meant something totally different. Like Lacks’s cells, the characters of the language continue to mutate and change over time.

Woodberry learned about Lacks in 2016 during the collective’s residency at the McColl Center in Charlotte, when he happened to meet someone involved with George C. Wolfe’s 2017 film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, based on Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 book of the same name. 

Woodberry was frustrated, both by Lacks’s story and by the fact that he hadn’t heard of her until his thirties. From enslavement to forced sterilization to the Tuskegee syphilis study, bodily consent has been stolen from African Americans in devastating, generation-altering ways.

But the collaborators of Intergalactic Soul also gleaned something extraordinary in Lacks’s story. Her clinical immortality aligns with Afrofuturism and survival against overwhelming odds. Through her cells, Woodberry says, Lacks is “preserving a space for Black people in the future”—the same thing that these artists are committed to doing through art and performance. 

Project LHAXX asks us to think about the power of narrative, who tells our stories, adaptation, and extraordinary survival. I asked the artists to consider the significance of the passage of four centuries since the effectual beginning of chattel slavery in the Americas, and only about 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation. 

“We still here,” Talley says. 

“Every Black person you see,” Woodberry adds, “is the offspring of a survivor.” 

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