Arts column: Grace Brown was just 43 when she died – but she wasn’t young

“HOW young!” we exclaim when we hear a woman has died in her 40s. Grace Brown was just 43 when she passed away last week – but she wasn’t young.

A mother and a fine athlete, she was head of the Sierra Leone women’s boxing team with sadly unfulfilled dreams of seeing her friends compete in this year’s Olympics.

Grace underwent a masectomy and suffered a stroke. On February 29, she was taken to have a bath and breakfast before returning to bed but she didn’t make it.

She was just 43 when she died – but she wasn’t young.

That is at least when you consider the average lifespan of a woman living in Sierra Leone.

It’s 42. That’s 42 in 2012 – 10 years after scientists first cloned a sheep, in a world that has robots helping surgeons carry out operations.

Grace beat it by one year.

She is one of the subjects of Lee Karen Stow’s 42 Women of Sierra Leone exhibition, which has been on display at Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum since March 2011.

The former press photographer visited the West African country for a two-week programme that linked women from her hometown of Hull with those living in Sierra Leone.

She was 41, less than half her expected lifespan but by her next birthday would have reached theirs.

Five years later and her commitment to the women she met there has not waned. She has even sold her house and moved in with her parents to help fund it.

Stow was amazed by the interest in her photography workshops. One woman has set up her own business, taking pictures for visas, passports and school children’s examination certificates. The money she makes helps the single mum pay to look after her sick father and disabled sister.

For the women of Sierra Leone, photography is a way out of poverty. For Stow, it’s a way of highlighting their plight.

When she sees enthusiasm for the project light up their faces, giving up her home must seem a small sacrifice, although few of us would be prepared to do it.

Her picture of Grace Brown was one of eight new images added to the International Slavery Museum’s exhibition last month.

Given their context, each photograph depicts a potential tragedy but they are also an expression of hope – not just for the women of Sierra Leone but for all of us.

In this week’s Post Culture, Alan Yentob, the BBC’s creative director, talks about the power of the arts to change the world. He describes them as “critical” and “life-enhancing” and insists that even in today’s austere times it is imperative that we find ways to fund them.

Culture – whether photography, painting, theatre, dance, film music – is a almighty force for change.

It gives a voice to those who are somehow prevented from expressing themselves in other ways – whether that’s a woman looking after her sick family in one of the world’s poorest countries or a young man struggling with his sexuality in Britain.

Through the arts we are drawn into experiences other than our own, encouraged to empathise with people who are not like us, shown that there is more than one way of thinking.

Through Stow’s exhibition, Grace will not be forgotten and hopefully one day death at the age of 43 will be considered young.

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