We Art Not "Other" to Ourselves: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Politics of Identity
February 28, 2022
This talk will explore one of the most fascinating figures of the nineteenth century, the sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis (c. 1845-1907) who was Ojibwe, Black, and born free. Lewis forged a career for herself among other expatriate artists in Rome during the height of the popularity of marble Neoclassical sculpture. As a devout Catholic, Lewis found herself among the religious majority but remained an outsider and curiosity to visitors from the United States. Moreover, the evidence of her work suggests an unwillingness to share or exploit subject matter that was most suggestive of her life. As we work through the ambiguities and ambivalences found in her sculptures, what we find is that even as outsiders may have viewed her as divided or incomplete, or as picturesque and exotic, Lewis remained whole and true to herself. Through her, we can begin to understand that the burdens of identity can be transformed into a politics of identity; and that, ultimately, those of us so burdened are not 'Other' to ourselves.
Kirsten Pai Buick is a professor of art history at the University of New Mexico. Her teaching and scholarship focus on the material and visual culture of the first British Empire, art of the U.S., African American art, landscape representation, and pro- and anti-abolitionist images in the Atlantic world. She received the David C. Driskell Prize for Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject (Duke Univ. Press, 2010). She has been named the Distinguished Scholar of 2022 by College Art Association. Her second book, In Authenticity: “Kara Walker” and the Eidetics of Racism, is in progress.