The many faces of Ebola: A morning with Tim Benson

“NHS medics prepare to join the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone”. Photography by: Simon Davis/DFID.

LONDON, United Kingdom — “So, you’ve just got back from Sierra Leone. I’m assuming you’re fine? You aren’t sick are you?” I swallow hard but try and sound casual. His expression tells me this is not an unfamiliar question: “I got back two months ago. If I’d caught Ebola, I would probably be dead by now. But you don’t catch it that easily – this misconception is part of the problem I’m trying to address here.”

It is a bitingly cold Friday morning and I am sitting with the artist Tim Benson in his studio in the evocatively named Chocolate Factory in North London. Tim arrived at 9.30am and will paint for the next four to five hours, unless he is teaching, then he will return after class and paint into the evening.

The artist’s tools. Photography by: Lucille Smithson.

The winter sun is blinding as it streams in through a vista of windows, prompting us to intermittently move as it makes its morning trajectory. The high ceilinged studio contains dozens of paintings of various sizes, and the floor is strewn with paint tubes and large brushes. Tim is known for his unsentimental portraits, so the absence of something like a chaise lounge or any kind of staging is not surprising. There are no soft touches or personal effects – it is purely functional, like a garage, but with great light.

Apart from his reputation as an award-winning portrait artist whose work holds no punches, Tim Benson, age 37, is the Course Director of the Diploma in Portraiture at The Heatherley School of Fine Art in Chelsea, and in 2013 was elected Vice President of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters.

“The community would see me as the virus” – Mohamed Rogers, Ebola burial team member, Sierra Leone. Photography by: Simon Davis/DFID.

During our conversation that spans almost three hours, he is present, engaging, and very serious. But then we are taking about Ebola, a word that conjures nothing short of panic. So when you hear of someone that actively sought to travel into the heart of where it was happening, and to personally meet, interview, and paint portraits of the people who were touched by it, you have to ask why?

It started back in 2008 when Tim was backpacking in the Congo with a friend of his. While walking through the jungle they happened upon various unmarked graves belonging to victims of Ebola. This visceral impression remained with him long after he returned home, and when the outbreak happened in 2014 it sparked an idea. “I had been wanting to somehow tie in my work with a project that I could make a difference with,” he tells me, “but executed in a way that did not take advantage of the disaster of it.”

Tim’s fiancé, a doctor at Kings College hospital in London, suggested he make contact with them to possibly collaborate on a project that could benefit survivors and the Sierra Leone front line hospital staff, many of whom had lost colleagues, family and friends. The Kings College London Hospital has a partnership with the Connaught Hospital in Free Town Sierra Leone, and it was the Kings College Hospital doctors who travelled there and helped establish the procedures and protocol to deal with the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

“The last burial: Alfred Kelfala from the roving Freetown Ebola burial team carefully lowers the corpse of a small child into its grave”. Photography by: Simon Davis/DFID.

Tim has currently completed two portraits and one is in progress. They are executed in his signature style – thick paint applied in bold dynamic brush strokes executed with very large paintbrushes. Despite the enormity and boldness of these portraits, the characterisation manages to be beautifully nuanced. The subjects have warm inviting expressions, but there is something in their eyes – the look you see in the eyes of people who have experienced suffering and seen terrible things. Yet there is hope too; this ability to survive and transcend the worst kind of adversity is nothing short of inspiring.

Tim Benson in his studio standing with his painting entitled ‘Mohammed, Ebola survivor’, oil on canvas, 60″ X 48″. Photography by: Lucille Smithson.

For those who survived the disease, came into contact with it, and helped care for those affected, the tragedy of Ebola did not end when the headlines did. As a consequence of the devastating stigma that Ebola carries, many of these people have since become ostracised by their families, friends and communities, and have lost their jobs. At the end of 2015 Tim conducted an art sale contributed to by both professional and amateur artists to raise money for the people he had met. “So they can have some help to live, find new jobs, and get their lives back,” he tells me.

“Laundry that helps to saves lives in the fight against Ebola”. Photography by: Jessica Seldon/DFID.

In the last month two new cases of Ebola have been reported in Sierra Leone and yet Tim is still determined to go back. He is eager to see how the people he met are coping.

Tim Benson’s portraits, a mixture of very large and smaller paintings, will exhibit as a solo show at the Mall Galleries Threadneedle Gallery in November 2016. Each portrait will have an accompanying audio testimony. In this way we are brought face to face with these people as we listen to their stories, just as the artist did in Sierra Leone. It affords us an intimacy, an immediacy, and helps us understand that the dangers of stigmatisation are a human problem, not just an African one.

“River taxi, Number Two beach, near Freetown”. Photography by: Tim Beson.

Courtesy of: Tim Benson | Website: timbenson.co.uk

Lucille Smithson About the author

Writer, artist in progress, reluctant brunette, and terrible at telling jokes. When she’s not fighting with her own paintings she’s conversing with artists about their creative process. She has a black cat called Diego. Visit her website at: lucillesmithson.com

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