By Maia Mathieu
Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis might be the most important artist that you’ve never heard of. She was born to a Mississauga Ojibwe mother and an African-Haitian father in 1844, twenty-one years before the passage of the 13th Amendment ended slavery in the United States, and was one of the first American women of color to achieve international fame for her art. Her work is significant not merely due to the artist’s race and heritage, but her subjects’ as well: Lewis was a gifted sculptor who depicted indigenous American and Black people in the heroic neoclassical styles usually associated with white ‘high art.’
Lewis’ personal life was marked by the struggles typical for people of color in nineteenth century America as well as personal tragedies. Her parents both died before she turned nine, and she spent much of her early years with her mother’s tribal family, hunting, fishing and selling trinkets to tourists. At age 15, she enrolled in Oberlin College, one of the first colleges to admit women and non-whites, but failed to graduate due to the systematic racism and an accusal that she had tried to poison her (white) roommates, for which she was acquitted. Oberlin honors this distinguished alumna with her namesake Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People, but was less enthusiastic about her at the time.
Upon leaving college, Lewis was apprenticed to a Boston sculptor, Edward A. Brackett, who had strong connections with the abolitionist community. The abolitionists loved her: she was educated, creative and her work (at this point, often sculptures of famous abolitionists) provided a perfect way of refuting notions that people of color were subhuman. Lewis herself was suspicious of the sort of do-gooders who were more interested in her as an exemplary ‘coloured girl’ rather than in her work as an artist.
By the 1860s she had made enough money to to fund a move to Rome. Italy was a more welcoming environment for Lewis than the Americans, here she was no longer subjected to constant racism and prejudice as a Black/Indigenous Catholic woman. Lewis came in contact with a largely-lesbian circle of American expats in Italy, leaving historians curious about her own sexuality. Lewis never married, nor had children, and is reported to have favoured androgynous dress. Rome became her base of operations until she died, although she’d often return to the US for exhibitions as her fame grew.
Lewis was the only African-American to exhibit her work at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. She made an incredible impression with her life-size, two-tonne depiction of ‘The Death of Cleopatra’. It is her most famous work and had a fascinating journey after Lewis’ death, including serving time as a racehorse’s grave monument before being rediscovered in the late 1970s. It now resides restored, along with most of Lewis’ surviving work, in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Depictions of indigenous and Black people in the nineteenth century were typically racist caricatures. Black people were rendered as subhuman slaves with animalistic features; women were overly-sexualised, as part of the narratives that sanctioned the ongoing rape of slave women. Indigenous people were violent savages to be subdued, depicted by white artists in ways that make the Neverland tribe in Disney’s Peter Pan look restrained and subtle. Lewis’ art stood out in dramatic contrast. Her subjects were humanised and given the dignity long denied them. Significantly, she created the first sculpture by an artist with African-American heritage on the subject of emancipation. ‘The Freed Woman and Her Child’ (1866) was lost over time, but it was followed by ‘Forever Free’ (1867) which survives. ‘Forever Free’ features a standing, half-nude male figure with a broken shackle at one wrist and a kneeling, fully-clad female figure praying by his side. By giving the woman more clothes than the man, in doing so Lewis was directly challenging the sexual objectification of enslaved women.
‘Forever Free’ is a work of immense intersectional and artistic import, but it has been criticised — along with certain others of Lewis’ art — for the more European-styled features of the woman depicted. This was intentional on Lewis’ part. Given the intersections of identities she was navigating, both the willful misunderstandings and romantic notions of different parts of her audience, Lewis very deliberately sought to avoid suggestions that she was creating self-portraits. Above anything else, this was her assertion of empathy and privacy as both an artist and a human being.
More than half of Lewis’ known works have been lost over time, and the details of the end of her life are unknown. Perhaps the mystery this creates is good, given the cultural desire for women to publically bleed and tell their personal tragedies to validate our desire for a voice. It creates a space for Lewis’ work to stand alone and be judged on its own merits — and from what we do know of this pioneering artist, I think she’d like that.