Mary Edmonia Lewis and Art Historian’s Interpretation of Non-White, Non-Male Artists

In the history of art, white men stand above the rest. In most of human history, institutions were not set up to allow anyone but a white male­­ to succeed in art. The art world is stacked in their favor. In addition, a lack of resources and acknowledgment for women and people of color has led to an art historical timeline filled with white males. Therefore, we still honor the feats of the white male. To progress away from inequity, the field is now turning to look at the work of those less recognized. Yet how can art historians do this without looking at the artist in question as only an ‘other’, a member of a minority group, or an exception? Kirsten Pai Buick’s Child of the Fire attempts to answer the question of revisiting art history’s past by looking at artist Mary Edmonia Lewis. By critiquing the way past historians have viewed Lewis as only either Black, Indian, or female, Buick illuminates the flaws in art history’s assessment of those who are not white males.

The field of art history has a limited scope. There is a lack of research on diverse artists. In the past couple of decades, research has expanded because historians are recognizing artists not originally seen as worthy (a white male). However, the new research tends to reduce the artist to their gender or race. Reduction of an artist extrapolates their art into only their ideological struggle. Kirsten Pai Buick utilizes the story of Mary Edmonia Lewis to examine an understudied artist and consciously works against reducing her to an ideology. Lewis was a late 19th century artist who achieved moderate fame in her lifetime through sculptural work. Buick’s main interest in Lewis is her self-proclaimed identification as a black and Native American woman. Lewis proclaimed herself to be 50% Native American but was actually less than 20%. Combined with her inclusion of African American figures in her work, Buick recognized that Lewis leaned into her ideologies. Buick interprets Lewis’s ownership as her accepting both her own ideologies and the popular titles she was given in the late 1800s as the first great African American and Indian artist. Since Lewis began in the field of art, her ownership of ideologies has affected how she has been assessed as an artist. Buick presents two arguments around how Lewis’s ideologies have affected her. First, Buick explains how she will assess Lewis through her career in order to move discussion away from “ideological baggage” and a focus on Lewis’s life (Buick 2). Evaluating Lewis through her career opens the path for her to be seen as an artist rather than an ideology. Buick continues with her second argument. Using Lewis as a jumping off point, Buick reveals that America still has a “Negro Problem and an Indian Problem and a Women Question” that are all “deeply embedded” in art history (xviii). Buick wields examples of Lewis being seen through racial lenses to explain her two arguments; Lewis had a career, not a life of ideologies, and art history has issues around non-white, non-male artists.

Child of the Fire is the only book that addresses Mary Edmonia Lewis alone and makes an effort to view her in a non-traditional art historical context. Buick is currently an associate art history professor at University of New Mexico. There she continues research in her fields of interest including art of the Americas and representations of the land, African American art, the impact of gender and race in art history, and the history of women as art patrons and collectors. Her motivation to bring themes of intersectionality into art history is still a rare one. Her forthcoming book, White Skins, White Mask: The Performance of Race in British Colonial Portraits moves in a different direction by addressing race head on. A winner of the Driskell Prize, an award to honor contributions to the field of art of the African Diaspora, Buick already has a strong base for her future works.

Buick’s methodology for an exploration of Lewis isn’t a typical one. Since Buick is addressing two arguments; how Lewis has been studied previously and how that relates to art history in total, her main sources are published works from other art historians. While most biographers and art historians focus on primary sources as their forms of evidence to assess an artist, Buick employs other art historian’s works more than sources from the end of the 19th century. Buick acts as a historiographer. She cites works ranging from 1970 to 2000, encapsulating the contemporary viewpoint of Lewis and female artists of color. Using published works that had already considered Lewis by other art historians enables Buick a broader scope. Buick can evaluate art historian’s take on a non-white non-male artist instead of writing a strict biography on Lewis. The use of some primary sources and lots of art historian’s sources around Lewis led Buick to explain the two arguments she posed.

One of the strongest points Buick makes is in regard to how Lewis’s blackness has impeded on her valid assessment as an artist. Buick delves into what she calls the “Negro Problem” of art history (32). She argues an assessment of a black artist is tautological, meaning black artists fall into a pattern of redundancy. One basis of art history is the “maintenance of an uninflected, normalized notion of ‘whiteness’”, a specific white framework that has been engrained into the idea of good art (32). This causes black artists to “affirm and replicate” their difference as ‘blackness’, not as a way to react against this framework, but simply because they do not fit into it (32). Because they are forced in a position of blackness, a black artist is only seen as their identity. The purpose of their art is not important, as the tautological state of a black artist means their work is only their race. Buick brings this back to Lewis when looking at how art historian David C. Driskell interpreted her art. In 1976, Driskell claimed Lewis felt the need to use racial themes because she wanted to show the hatred her father’s race endured. Driskell dismisses the various work Lewis did by putting it under a racial theme umbrella as well as makes up an idea about Lewis’s relationship with her father and race that was never shown in primary evidence. In response Buick states, “It is as if racism were the only experience that shaped her identity and thus the only force that inspired her art” (33). Buick illuminates the tautology of Lewis’s identity makes her art only ‘blackness’. She continues stating that perspectives like Driskell’s make Lewis a “perpetual outsider” to white culture, and therefore good art (33). In opposition to Driskell and the popular stance he stands for, Buick provides a perspective of agency for Lewis. Rather than racial tautology, Lewis’s work sprang from a “negotiated identity” of race, gender, and America itself (35). Her art was more than self-portraiture, but a combination of the various communities she was involved in, and a contribution to the American art scene of her time.

Buick builds on her assessment of the problem of blackness in art history by looking at another artist of the late 19th century, Robert Duncanson. Duncanson, a landscapist, and Lewis are both subject to essentialism in interpretations of their work. Joseph D. Ketner, one of Duncanson’s biographers, claimed that the artist appropriated the landscape to his cultural identity and used it to communicate. In short, Ketner argues the rocks, trees, and other aspects of a Duncanson landscape were the artist’s “metaphors for emancipation and an essential blackness” and a way to communicate art to the African American community (36). There is no evidence that Duncanson intended his landscapes to be interpreted this way. While Duncanson’s work has been reinterpreted by other art historians for what it is, (a landscape), Lewis’s hasn’t. The distinction between the two artists is Lewis provides the black (and Indian) subject in her sculptures, unlike Duncanson, and has therefore always been subject to the essentialism Ketner used against Duncanson. Her work is inherently tautological; the only interpretation art historians present is a racial one. Buick exposes the tautology of race in evaluations of Lewis as an artist, and continues to expand the racial lens to include a Native American one.

An area that could have been explored further in Child of Fire is Lewis’s identity as a woman. Buick also fails to expose how women and women of color’s art has been interpreted in the same way she does for artists of color. A few arguments surrounding gender were made, most specifically with regard to Lewis’s representation of Native American women. Buick notes that Lewis, with her depiction of the story of Hiawatha, attempted to sculpt an ethnographically correct Native American for the first time in recorded art history (132). Up until Lewis, depictions of Indian women had been whitewashed or shown in submissive positions to white males. In the Victorian period, this subtle move broke ground into “who could and could not be considered a woman” in the culture and art (132). However, there Buick ends her discussion on Lewis as a gendered figure. Since the structure of the book was set up with one chapter focused on Lewis as a black subject and two chapters on her as a Native American subject, I suggest that another chapter would have been beneficial. Another chapter could address what it means for Lewis to be assessed as a woman, her time living in Rome with an expat group of gender and sexual fluid women, or her status within racial communities as a woman. A chapter on Lewis’s gender ideology would have answered questions I still have for Buick. Although Buick includes gender focused authors, spending more time in her analysis of Lewis and bringing in feminist art historians such as Linda Nochlin could have balanced intersectionality of Mary Edmonia Lewis.

Child of Fire is at the forefront of progression in art history. For too long the field has been dominated by white males in many ways. There have been few full investigations into artists of different ideologies, and of those assessments most have reduced the artist to a race or gender. Kirsten Pai Buick breaks new ground with her study of Mary Edmonia Lewis. Buick not only evaluates Lewis through her career and not her ideological story, but lays down evidence of the reduction of Lewis’s career by past art historians, and takes on the problems surrounding non-white, non-male artists in art history. This book provides an excellent example for those in the field of what it means to reexamine the artists of history, acknowledge greats of the past, but move forward with artists of different gender and race in a productive way.

 

Bibliography

Buick, Kirsten Pai. Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject. Duke University Press, 2010.

“Kirsten Buick.” University of New Mexico: Faculty. Accessed October 24, 2016. http://art.unm.edu/kirsten-buick/.

 

 

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