Highgate artist creates portraits of Sierra Leone’s ebola survivors

Faces of Ebola Tim Benson

Faces of Ebola Tim Benson - Credit: Archant

Artist Tim Benson travelled from North London to Sierra Leone at the tail end of last year’s Ebola epidemic

Artist Tim Benson travelled from North London to Sierra Leone at the tail end of last year’s Ebola epidemic.

Over the next 12 days he interviewed and photographed 40 survivors and their carers at the Connaught Hospital in the capital Freetown.

Back in his studio, the former Highgate School pupil who grew up near North Hill, completed a series of oil portraits which go on show at the Mall Galleries in central London alongside audio of the subjects speaking.

He hopes they will help people understand the terrible legacy of a virus that between March 2014 and November 2015 killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa.

“After travelling in central Africa in 2008 I had been aware of Ebola, seeing the constant spectre in unmarked graves in the rainforest,” says Benson who studied at Byam Shaw art school in Archway and now lives in Wood Green.

“When it made the jump to West Africa I sat up and took notice – I always wanted to combine my work and humanity in a meaningful way that would transcend art for art’s sake. I feel passionately about the enduring legacy of Ebola in Sierra Leone, of the stigmatisation of survivors and the nurses who worked to help them.”

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Benson says survivors have been demonised, lost their jobs and been ostracised by close family through fear that they remain infected.

“It’s an extremely deadly disease. Biologists don’t really know how it manifests itself over time. When they heard that (Scottish Ebola nurse) Pauline Cafferkey was back in hospital or that it can stay in semen for up to a year, people quite understandably panicked.”

Benson’s wife is a doctor at King’s College London which sent a team of virologists at the start of the outbreak to install vital protocols to contain the disease.

He got an introduction to visit the Connaught through the Kings Sierra Leone Partnership which continues to work with the hospital and will benefit from 20 per cent profits from the exhibition.

Although the epidemic was petering out in October 2015, Benson was still “very nervous” before travelling.

“I’d be crazy not to be, but once I was out there meeting survivors and hearing their stories it put my own situation into stark relief. Being an artist is quite an egotistical thing but it was humbling and liberating not to think about yourself. It makes you think about other people, which for me was a wonderful thing.”

Benson has shared his portraits with his subjects via Facebook and hopes to return to Sierra Leone to give them prints. He hopes their stories educate people that “post-Ebola stigmatisation is very real but not particularly African”.

“It can happen here. Thirty years ago, people reacted to HIV in a similar way.”

Although Benson cut his artistic teeth on landscapes, a few years ago he decided to concentrate “on the human face and storytelling through portraiture”.

“Landscapes are inanimate, they don’t tell stories, but on a basic level portraiture is the human experience. People can identify with the common humanity in portraits in a way they can’t with a landscape, which is why the BP Portrait award attracts an enormous number of visitors who wouldn’t normally go to an art gallery.”

Ebola Portraits at the Mall Galleries November 7 to 13 mallgalleries.org.uk