Memory of Ella Kissi-Debrah inspires new London art

In 2013, a nine-year-old girl lost her life due to toxic air in the UK capital. As the fight to tackle pollution continues, a new installation opens in the city raising awareness of the issue. Air Quality News takes a closer look, with details of where and when to see the work at the foot of this page. 

When Ella Kissi-Debrah tragically died on 15th February 2013, the  coroner’s report offered a reductive verdict. It would take her mother, Rosamund, seven years of campaign work to secure an updated and expanded explanation for what happened. 

That came in December 2020, with a landmark ruling at Southwark Coroner’s Court. As assistant Coroner Philip Barlow clearly explained: ‘Air pollution made a material contribution to Ella’s death’. Having lived her whole life just 25m from the busy South Circular road ongoing exposure to harmful emissions was likely ‘very high’. 

Now recognised as the first person in Britain to have air pollution listed on a death certificate, her case has catalysed mounting pressure on central and local governments to do something about the level of toxins many of us are breathing in. It also shone a light on the disproportionate impact of air pollution. Simply put, the most vulnerable in society, minority ethnic groups, and those contributing the least emissions usually bear the brunt. Something London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, emphasised today to mark the ten year anniversary of Ella’s death. 

‘The science shows air pollution is causing young Londoners to grow-up with stunted lungs, it’s triggering a host of debilitating illnesses – from lung cancer and heart disease, to asthma and dementia – and it’s leading to the premature deaths of around 4,000 people in our capital every year. We also know that it’s minority communities and the poorest Londoners, who are least likely to own a car, who are being hit hardest,’ he explained in a public statement. 

Despite this understanding, progress is slow. This year already, London has recorded its worst air quality in more than half a decade, with Downing Street admitting targets on ambient pollution cannot be met with current legislation, and criticised for offering one answer: change those targets. But something could be about to change in the shape of Ella’s Law, or the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill, which goes through its next parliamentary debate on 24th February.

Simply put, the idea is to enshrine in UK law the fundamental right to breathe without fearing for your health. 

To pay tribute to Ella, raise awareness about the ongoing debate around legislature, and highlight the air pollution crisis, tonight a new installation will go live on London’s South Bank at 6PM. Breathe for Ella sees a series of sketches depicting Rosamund gasping for air projected onto the Rambert Building. As visual artist Dryden Goodwin explains, the work has deeply personal roots. 

‘I made the original version of Breathe in 2012 projected on St Thomas’ Hospital, opposite the Houses of Parliament, featuring 1,300 drawings of my then five-year-old son. This first animation of him breathing in different rhythms, his small growing body breathing in London’s polluted night sky, seemed like an expression of all of our vulnerabilities when faced with environmental pollution beyond our control,’ says Goodwin.

‘This was the first commission I made for the arts and science charity Invisible Dust, which brings artists, scientists and communities together to highlight environmental issues through new artworks being created. For this commission I responded to conversations with Professor Frank Kelly and his research into the effects of air pollution on young children’s lungs,’ he continues. 

Working, living and raising a family in Lewisham, close to the South Circular, Goodwin was involved in last year’s 2022 Borough of Culture celebrations. The theme – climate crisis – offered an ideal opportunity to revisit his Breathe project. Collaborating with Dr Ian Mudway, an environmental toxicologist interviewed by Air Quality News last year, a decision was made to focus on influential activists from the area. 

‘So we began a process of creating Breathe: 2022,’ Goodwin recalls. ‘I asked Rosamund and five Lewisham residents and clean air activists, including my now 15-year-old son, to visit my studio to be filmed, out of breath and struggling to breathe, so I could then create many hundreds of drawings of them, to begin the animation process. 

‘Whilst making the 1,300 drawings for Breathe: 2022, I started to feel that animation could be viewed as a metaphor for our essential collective action, and how, like the individual drawings coming together, we can become more than the sum of our parts,’ he adds. ‘With Breathe for Ella on the side of the Rambert Building to remember Ella on the 10th anniversary of her death, I hope as people watch the animated drawings, once very tiny in my studio now scaled up… it will heighten our awareness of the precious and precarious relationship we all have to breathing and the exchange we all share with the air we breathe.’

An example of art taking on wider issues, Goodwin is keen to point out motivation lies in both his lived experiences and those of people he encounters. More so, opportunities to start or continue conversations in ways that mediums like journalism or scientific research often cannot. Creative formats at once impactful but accessible, thought-provoking yet relatively easy to digest in terms of audience time and effort. 

‘Art can make the invisible visible, it can decode scientific or political information and distill it into something that has the potential to engage people in surprising and less conventional ways,’ he explains. ‘For all of us it’s important, in fact essential, to try to find a way to engage with all the realities surrounding the climate crisis – both locally and globally. Different artists’ approaches to making and showing work can really be a powerful tool to raise awareness.’ 

Breathe for Ella launches 5PM today, Wednesday 15th February, at South Bank’s Rambert Building. Speeches from campaigners, poets and collectives will accompany the work, with musical performance by Ella’s siblings, Robert and Sophia. 

Projection switch on is 6PM, and work will be shown each evening until Friday 17th February (inclusive). No booking is required, the event is free to attend. 

Find out more about Ella’s Law here

More information on the Ella Roberta Family Foundation can be found here

Details about Invisible Dust’s work can be found here


All images: (C) Dryden Goodwin / Fynn-Col Goodwin










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