Just Divided

This week’s contributing blogger, Samyukta Mallick, is a senior at Northeastern University pursuing a BS in Biochemistry with a minor in Music. 

VoCA is pleased to present this blog post in conjunction with Associate Professor of Contemporary Art History, Gloria Sutton’s Spring 2020 Honors Seminar, The Art of Visual Intelligence at Northeastern University. This interdisciplinary course combines the powers of observation (formal description, visual data) with techniques of interpretation to sharpen perceptual awareness allowing students to develop compelling analysis of visual phenomena.


“Colored People Time: Mundane Futures, Quotidian Pasts, Banal Presents” is a group exhibition at the MIT List Visual Arts Center that highlights the past, present, and future of Black Americans in three parts. Curated by Meg Onli1 of the ICA Philadelphia, which is where the exhibition began, the title of the exhibition “comes to function as a linguistic tool for people of color to control their own temporality even when placed within the construct of Western time”.2 The exhibition includes a wide range of media, archival documents, and new commissions by an intergenerational group of artists including Aria Dean, Kevin Jerome Everson, Matthew Angelo Harrison, Carolyn Lazard, Dave McKenzie, Martine Syms, Sable Elyse Smith, and Cameron Rowland. It is a powerful commentary on the racial inequality and injustice that has shaped and continues to shape the country. Each work can stand alone, and yet each one converses with the others to tell a story.

As a biochemistry major, when I walked into the exhibit, I was immediately drawn to the Scanning electron micrograph of just-divided HeLa cells, a stock image that was taken at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The photograph is quite small and unassuming, and yet sends a message as powerful as the manifesto painted in large letters on the wall perpendicular to it.

Scanning electron micrograph of just-divided HeLa cells.

Scanning electron micrograph of just-divided HeLa cells. Courtesy of the author.

At first glance, a microscope image of dividing cancer cells feels out of place in an art exhibit with such a strong sociopolitical message, especially since it is installed in the first gallery. Walking up to the photograph and seeing that this is a stock image further amplifies this disconnect, as there is no credited artist or photographer. However, knowing the history of HeLa cells and the story of Henrietta Lacks and her descendants provides context regarding its inclusion in the exhibit.

Wall label accompanying Scanning electron micrograph of just-divided HeLa cells. Courtesy of the author.

Henrietta Lacks was a young black woman who was diagnosed with cancer and had a sample of her cells removed for a biopsy in 1951. These cells were given to a research lab without her consent and were the first ever to divide and grow outside the human body, subsequently becoming a vital tool in medical research. However, despite all the advancements and medical developments that her cells yielded, neither Henrietta Lacks nor her family were compensated for the use of the cells, and many members of her family struggle to afford health insurance today.3

Along with Carolyn Lazard’s Pre-Existing Condition (2019), this image shines a light on the history of scientific experimentation on black people in the US. The gallery notes provide a brief background of Henrietta Lacks, explaining why Scanning electron micrograph of just-divided HeLa cells is included in Colored People Time. By taking the burden of context upon herself and the museum, Meg Onli makes the photograph’s commentary about injustice and reparations accessible to the entire audience. As a curator, she acts as translator for the viewers. In this case, the translation is needed not between artist and audience, but rather between the curated narrative and the audience.

Meg Onli expands this narrative further by navigating through other time periods as well. The exhibition contains three sections—“Mundane Futures”, “Quotidian Pasts”, and “Banal Presents” —and placed together, they tell a story that begins with ancient African art and ends with an Afrofuturist manifesto. In the “Quotidian Pasts” section, a collection of 3D printed recreations of sculptures from six African countries by artist Matthew Harrison challenges the viewer to consider how cultural artworks are used for capital profit and to ask what makes art authentic. Moving to the “Banal Presents” section, Sable Elyse Smith’s Coloring Book 33 (2019), appropriates prison visitation room coloring books to illustrate the traumatic effects that mass incarceration can have on children. With this context, Scanning electron micrograph of just-divided HeLa cells and the exhibition as a whole deliver a much stronger message and illustrate what the past and present of inequality look like.

Installation view of the “Colored People Time” exhibit. Courtesy of the MIT List Center.

In addition to conveying a complete narrative, preserving artist intent is also vital for curation of a successful exhibition. For many contemporary art showcases, artist intent can be identified through conversations with the creators themselves. For an NIH image however, artist intent is a more complex concept. Micrographs such as this have been used in scientific papers, presentations, and textbooks around the country, but are rarely found in art exhibitions, especially ones that illustrate the exploitative history of health institutes in the US. Therefore, it is pertinent to question how the presence of Scanning electron micrograph of just-divided HeLa cells in “Colored People Time” changes the creator’s intent and the meaning, and whether it honors the original image.

In the presence of an individual artist, living or deceased, intent can be defined as how a specific artwork strives to articulate, communicate, or express an idea.4 Artist intent determines the lens through which an artwork is viewed, whether it be humor, commentary, or something else. Without a credited artist however, this lens becomes blurry. The Portrait of Edmond de Belamy (2018), for instance, was painted not by a human, but rather was created by Artificial Intelligence through an algorithm. Since AI does not paint with intent, the onus of providing intent falls to the collective that created the algorithm. Similarly, for a photograph without a credited photographer, the intent falls to the overarching organization.

This micrograph was taken by a researcher at the National Cancer Institute and added to their visual database in order to “enhance public understanding of science and health.”5 Furthermore, the National Cancer Institute’s Visuals Online site provides access to all their images so that people may “convey meaning, describe concepts, and tell stories.”6 Thus in order to preserve artist intent, the curator must interpret these statements and determine if they align with the exhibition. Certainly, Meg Onli’s use of the image tells a story. Likewise, by calling attention to the capitalist appropriation of black bodies for science, she underscores an essential public health issue. Onli states in the gallery notes7 that the copyright for Scanning electron micrograph of just-divided HeLa cells is owned by Getty Images and the NIH and that the rights were purchased for the exhibition. Against this backdrop, the image stands out as a commentary on the unfair acquisition of the rights to HeLa cells by the US government. Through her skillful curation of a powerful exhibition, Onli sparks conversation about the current and future impacts of Jim Crow era legislation and reparations.


1 https://icaphila.org/staff-members/meg-onli/

2 https://listart.mit.edu/exhibitions/colored-people-time-mundane-futures-quotidian-pasts-banal-presents.

See also https://icaphila.org/exhibitions/colored-people-time-mundane-futures-quotidian-pasts-and-banal-presents/

3 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/henrietta-lacks-immortal-cells-6421299/

See also Skloot, Rebecca. Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group, 2010.

4 Dykstra, Steven W. “The Artist’s Intentions and the Intentional Fallacy in Fine Arts Conservation.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, vol. 35, no. 3, 1996, p. 197., doi:10.2307/3179782.

5 https://www.nih.gov/institutes-nih/nih-office-director/office-communications-public-liaison/nih-guidance-use-media-including-photos-graphics-video-clips-audio-files-web-publications-training-materials-or-other-public-resources

6 https://visualsonline.cancer.gov/about.cfm

7 Scanning electron micrograph of just-divided HeLa cells. “Colored People Time.” Gallery notes. MIT List Visual Arts Center.

See also https://icaphila.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Mundane-Futures-Gallery-Notes.pdf

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