Lenton gallery Primary hosts Sonya Dyer’s speculative installation The Ready Room

Words: Jennifer Brough
Photos: Sonya Dyer
Saturday 23 March 2024
reading time: min, words

Reclaiming the neglected stories of Black women in science and mythology, Lenton gallery Primary hosts Sonya Dyer’s speculative installation where hard science meets science fiction and the artist reimagines an alternative journey for immortal HeLa cells beyond the laboratory’s confines…


Outside of the main exhibition space, Dyer lays the groundwork with a selection of curated books including N. K. Jemisin’s HOW LONG ‘TIL BLACK FUTURE MONTH?, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones edited by Sheree R. Thomas, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Opposite, a short film shows clips of Oprah Winfrey discussing the role of Deborah Lacks (Henrietta’s daughter) and her fight for justice in an adaptation of the aforementioned book, alongside a Black female astronaut discussing her career.

Before beginning, it is important to know about Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who died in 1951 from cervical cancer at 31 years old. Samples of her cells were taken, without permission or knowledge, and eventually became one of the most important discoveries in medical research due to their ability to reproduce indefinitely. HeLa cells, as they are known, were even the first human materials to be sent into space. Now you are primed to enter The Ready Room.

While the historic and institutional roots that inflict the misery inflicted on the Black female body are easily traceable to medicine today, Dyer balances this weight with wonder.

Through the curtains, the viewer enters The Ready Room. In naval culture, this is the place where senior crew receive their mission briefs. Here, our brief takes the form of a two-channel moving image work: Action > Potential. The short film traces Andromeda, protagonist and personification of the Andromeda galaxy and the Aethiopian princess of the same name in Greek myth. Andromeda finds herself uprooted from her home galaxy, having landed in a science lab at King’s College London. She picks her way through the corridors and equipment and overhears two scientists discussing the importance of HeLa cells in an exchange oscillating between abstract and emotive. As cells from the immortal HeLa line are spun in a centrifuge, a rogue mitochondria escapes from beneath the microscope. Vibrant blue and urgent, the cell (Lucy) is a messenger. Pulsing with code, the cell reaches out to Andromeda: ‘Come home / it’s time’. Confused, our voyager asks, ‘How?’ And so the journey begins.

Through a series of interpretive movement, trippy visuals of symbiosis, and frantic Google research, our mission is to witness Andromeda return to her world. The interaction between these imagined beings is both urgent and playful. As Andromeda quickly learns responses to Lucy’s Morse code-like instructions, their relationship strengthens. In a delicious sci-fi sequence, the two screens show Lucy and Andromeda facing one another. Where Lucy is thrumming with life, Andromeda is calmly awaiting further guidance. Despite being mitochondria, Lucy’s cellular walls expand and contract, reforming into beckoning tentacles that enter Andromeda. While Dyer’s otherworldly narrative is grounded by its linearity, scenes like this lend to a hum of possibility. As Dyer asks in the exhibition notes, ‘What if the HeLa cells found a better way to live?’ And, in the film, what happens when an immortal cell meets a celestial body? A journey of expansive wandering and wondering.

Nearby the screens is an accompanying sculpture titled Lucy. Lit in purple and red hues, the vibrant cell from the screen has calcified into something resembling an asteroid. This physical representation of the rogue mitochondria grounds the film by offering a tangible piece of Dyer’s elsewhere. The dualistic narrative of history and speculative futures mesh again, as Lucy – the accompanying text informs us – was named after three enslaved women who were the experiment subjects of an infamous 19th-century American gynaecologist. While the historic and institutional roots that inflict the misery inflicted on the Black female body are easily traceable to medicine today, Dyer balances this weight with wonder. She employs a speculative gaze to shine a light on historic injustice while hinting towards a better future. Andromeda is a playful character who actively experiments with her form. She dances, communicates, and grows as a result of her interactions. The sculpture of Lucy not only evokes an Easter Island-style head, suggesting a powerful archaic being beneath the surface while prompting the viewer to wonder what journeys this being took before ending up here. The questions are endless.


Primary Ready Room Sonia Dyer

Like all good speculative narratives, Action > Potential is grounded in the political. By centring Henrietta Lacks’ life with care and as a site of reimagining, Dyer invites us to do more than witness passively, which is why some of the dialogue between the scientists is wince-inducing as it emphasises perpetual tension between the scientific advancements made possible by a non-consenting Black woman’s body. As a young scientist enthuses that HeLa cells are ‘easy to work with and resilient’, her colleague intones, ‘we forget they are cells […] they need to be looked after’. He traces a clear path from lack of informed consent and medical malpractice to Lacks’ cells becoming the ‘gold standard for biomedical research’. By holding Lacks’ presence in the laboratory, a place that would have been alien to her as anything other than the subject of study in 1950s America, Dyer opens a spatial doorway to Andromeda’s arrival. Here, the two ‘immortal’ women are time-travelling parallels, the key difference being Andromeda is an active narrator who represents and reclaims ‘the neglected stories of Black women of science and mythology’. A fact: the body of one Black woman can change the course of biomedicine is a marvel that should be celebrated. Another: this overdue recognition is one hard-fought for and the result of the medical industrial complex’s negligence and discarding of raced, gendered bodies. A question: how can we imagine a better world without exploitation of any body?

As the film’s title suggests, action is greater than potential. Potential here is a pleasantly ambiguous word, one that requires the continuation of our own learning and imaginative journeys beyond the mission statement issued in the Ready Room. After leaving the exhibition, there are plenty more journeys to embark on: learn Henrietta Lacks’ story, read N. K. Jemisin, Octavia Butler, Akwaeke Emezi, and so many other visionary Black women rewriting a genre that had previously negated their existence. Speculative fiction reminds us that there is always more than what we’ve been told to believe and Sonya Dyer’s work reminds us of exactly that.

You can find The Ready Room at Primary until Saturday 30 March


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