Edmonia Lewis Sculpts Cleopatra
Last week, Google launched its celebration of Black History Month with a “doodle image” of the sculptor known as Edmonia Lewis on its homepage. The depiction shows Lewis with chisel in hand, carving a white marble statue of Cleopatra. Although Lewis often presented herself as an artist, there are no such images of her with a chisel. Instead she marketed herself with more conventional studio portraits. Gazing calmly at the camera, garbed in soft drapery, the presentations of Edmonia Lewis in her nineteenth-century cartes-des-visites photographs were clearly staged for an effect. Yet her embodiment as African American and Ojibwe varies according to who tells the story. The fact that Lewis spent much of her career in Rome further confuses attention to her giant sculpture of Cleopatra, a cartoon version of which graces the Google page.
As an anomalous African American woman artist, Lewis might best be understood through the objects of her attention. These objects, perhaps even more strangely, were sometimes inspired by the popular success of “The Song of Hiawatha,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s now almost forgotten poem, retelling legends of the Ojibwe with whom Lewis sometimes identified herself. Like other artists in the nineteenth-century United States, Lewis sculpted busts of Minnehaha and Hiawatha, as well as producing her better-known emancipation piece, “Forever Free.” Still more oddly, perhaps, she was lumped by the novelist Henry James into the “white, marmorean flock” of women artists who inhabited studio space in Rome in the mid to late nineteenth century. Even as she set out to be observed, Edmonia Lewis had a relation to community vigilance that must have been one at once of anxiety and appreciation. On the one hand, she produced works that earned her a good living. But financial success likely did not dull the anxiety she carried from her experience as a student at Oberlin, where townspeople severely beat her because they suspected her of poisoning fellow students.
Edmonia Lewis sculpted Hiawatha in 1864 and a marble bust of Minnehaha in 1868. She traveled to Italy and began seeking commissions for other works. Unlike most sculptors, who assigned the production of their sculptures to assistants, Lewis claimed to carve the marble with her own hands instead of hiring Italian workmen to do it. Her presentation of her identity through sculpting busts based on Longfellow’s poem seems an ironic counterpoint to the deliberate stagings of her photographs. The modernizing of identification practices in the mid-nineteenth century saw the photograph turned into a calling card, as one of many cartes des visites. Viewing such an object in the hands of an artist who presents herself as in the business of carving faces, calls attention to the development of photography as part of a modern concept of the self.
Edmonia Lewis commissioned her own pamphlet to accompany the showing of “Cleopatra” at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. Calling attention to the statue as an immigrant entry, this fifty page pamphlet contained ten pages of reprinted newspaper accounts of the statue’s exhibition in Philadelphia that described Lewis as alternately a “colored sculptress” and a “full blooded Chippewa.” During the display of Cleopatra in 1876, as the newspaper comments noticed, Lewis had her body interposed before the large white marble woman. And her body, by report, literally took the blows of viewers who shoved her as they approached her statue, mistaking her for an appurtenance or an obstacle.
Edmonia Lewis reported that her childhood name had been "Wildfire," a name that appears as part of a complex identity. There is a reason not to remember the name. There is a reason for the substitution. And what is that reason? The scandal at Oberlin College, where she was accused of poisoning classmates who were white, reverberates through the years, although Oberlin has now reclaimed her and named a building after her. After spending some time at a race track outside of Chicago, “Cleopatra” has also been reclaimed and is now owned by the Smithsonian. Nonetheless, the position of the suicidal Cleopatra with her breast exposed engages refusals to witness that are built into beliefs about migrating bodies. Reportedly, Cleopatra committed suicide in order not to be removed from Egypt and exhibited as a prisoner of war in Rome. Sculpting her image in Rome and then returning with her to the United States, Edmonia Lewis enacted a different form of migration. For Google to feature this woman artist at work is to make the tension of these migrating bodies visible all over again.
Shirley Samuels is a Professor at Cornell University and a Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project