Activist Nikkolas Smith Unveils New Artwork On Racial Health Disparities And Sickle Cell Disease
Artist and activist Nikkolas Smith has released a series of digital portraits, illustrating the importance of blood donation for those living with sickle cell disease. Smith unveiled the collection, titled Transfusion, on June 19, on commission from the American Red Cross. This is part of a long-standing initiative by the organization to increase the amount of Black blood donors and minimize disparities within the health field.
According to the National Library of Medicine, sickle cell disease most commonly impacts Black Americans. It occurs when red blood cells harden and change shape, making blood flow difficult and causing excruciating pain. Though it is an invisible disease, the harm it imposes is not any less significant than those that aren’t. Those living with it find themselves affected by the disease in daily life and Smith’s artwork aims to highlight these lived experiences.
In the series, Smith tells the stories of four individuals suffering from the disease, all at different stages of their lives. He shows a 12-year-old boy named Dreylan Holmes, whose disease keeps him isolated from his peers. He also portrays an epidemiologist, Tiereny Bell, whose pain interferes with her work. “People will sometimes say to me, you don’t look sick,” Bell said. “And I respond, well, what does sick look like?”
He also portrays Dr. Rubin Beaufort, a retired mechanical engineer and Erica Hunter, a retired microbiologist. Beaufort has been the recipient of over 240 blood transfusions in his lifetime. Despite this, he still experiences agonizing pain regularly. Hunter, who is 41 years old and has received more than 50 blood transfusions, was forced into an early retirement because of struggles with the disease.
Smith spoke to the Red Cross about his experience creating the artwork and what it meant to see so his subjects living with the blood disorder. “What stood out to me the most when speaking with these incredibly brave sickle cell warriors is how much constant pain they endure due to the malfunctioning cells in their body, but also the level of determination they have to maintain in order to push through until their next blood transfusion,” Smith said.
Patients can grow immune to certain donors following frequent blood transfusions if they are not closely matched. Because of this, blood donation from specific demographics are vital, especially African Americans. Dr. Yvette Miller, the executive medical director of the Red Cross, discussed this, saying, “Sickle cell disease can be inherited by anyone of any race and ethnicity, but in the U.S., the great majority of individuals who have the disease are of African descent.”
Smith’s work addresses health disparities in regards to the disorder. He wants to do that by increasing blood donation among the Black community so that people like ones he’s depicted can have access to more compatible blood products.