Discovering More

Many things are missing from this site, which will always be a work in progress, but two areas where I still need to do the work and discover more about Edmonia Lewis and her historical, cultural, and geographical context are especially important:

(1) Edmonia Lewis’ Native American Heritage

I am only beginning to learn about the way Edmonia Lewis’ biography intersects with the history of Ojibwa and possibly Mohawk communities in the 19th century, and with the interactions between Black people and Native Americans. How Lewis “fits in” here is complicated, because she did not maintain her connection to her Ojibwa relatives (as far as we know), but also often romanticized and marketed herself as an offspring of “wild Indians,” while also making problematic remarks about the “dirty” Plains Indians she saw on her train trip to California. Her sculptures with Native American themes may harken back to her Ojibwa roots, but are channeled through the white lens of The Song of Hiawatha, the 1855 book-length epic poem about an Iroquois chief by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, based partly on a white anthropologist’s descriptions of Native American culture. They also reflect the various threads in the representations of Native Americans in 19th-century American art, because her sculptures appealed to the romanticized ideas popular among White people about “noble savages” and tragic “doomed Indians,” at the very same time as the rights of Native Americans were even more severely curtailed, as more land was stolen from them, and as genocide and systematic eradication of Native American culture continued throughout the century.

This site tries hard to avoid “presentism”–that is, drawing direct connections between current debates and questions about Edmonia Lewis that could be historically imprecise and problematic. But Edmonia Lewis’ continuous negotiations between different ways of naming her ethnic identity is still being rehashed in debates about biracial people and especially biracial women, who have to deal with both the whiteness in general and the white beauty standards for women in particular. It is admittedly dicey to draw parallels between the debates about Vice President Kamala Harris and whether she is “really Black” and the varying emphasis Lewis and her allies and patrons placed on her being Native American and Black, depending on the context. But the discussion about “authentic” ethnicity, about the choices of what a person of color with a mixed-race background calls herself, and the policing / manipulation of that choice by white people is clearly still as culturally relevant today as it was in the 19th century.

If you are interested in exploring the sparse evidence we have for Lewis’ ideas about these questions, and her complicated relationshop with her Native American heritage as evident in her art, chapter 3 of Kirsten Buick’s book is a good start (see Resources).

(2) Edmonia Lewis In Space and Time

I am planning to create a set of digital maps to show where in the world Lewis was at what time is currently in the works. They will show where Edmonia lived and exhibited in the US, where she lived in Europe (specifically in Rome, where she moved studios frequently), and at what times she moved back and forth between the contitents.

The context for this is that the transatlantic journeys that brought Black people not INTO slavery via the Middle Passage, but from the US to Europe in the 19th-century to study, write, practice art, and be part of various communities of artists and intellectuals in France, Italy, and England. This has become a huge topic for scholars in the past 20 years that I am just beginning to read up on. And the same is true for the overall use of digital cartography in art history (as well as history and literary studies). So this takes more time than just putting some dots on a map, and will take some more time. For now, a blank map:

Your Turn:

What else is missing from these pages? What are you exploring, or curious to explore?

Also: If you want to know about this cartography work in progress or work, other maps I’ve made, the digital tools I am using, and the scholarly work that I’ve been trying to absorb about the use of digital cartography in various humanities disciplines, please contact me.

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