In his first write-up, Okike Ebenezer shines a brief light on the black sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Born free in 1844 it’s no exaggeration to describe Edmonia Lewis as a revolutionary. As a female she was disadvantaged. As an Afro American she was further disadvantaged. Despite these challenges she rose to make a name for herself as a sculptor in a white male dominated field. Fusing her Afro-American origins with Neo-classic art, Edmonia became a name in her own right breaking through the barriers of stero-types, prejudice and racism.
Edmonia Mary Lewis was born in July 1844 in New York. Lewis attended abolitionist schools in the United States where she was first confronted with the stigma of racism. After her college education Lewis moved to Boston where she experienced her first major break influencing her move to Europe.
Her move to Europe was triggered by mainly factors surrounding racism in the United States. In Rome she didn’t have to contend with such thus giving her much freedom of expression to create new works and even have her works exhibited. Lewis’s move to Rome helped her infuse neoclassical style into her art.
Neo-classical art is based on the principles of simplicity and symmetry, which were virtues of the arts of Rome and Ancient Greece and were more immediately drawn from 16th-century Renaissance Classicism.
For decades art has been a medium that defines one’s race/background, a pointer to heritage. Being a female black sculptor in the field of Neo-classics it is right to say Edmonia Lewis broke stereotypes and boundaries surrounding how art should be made and from whom it should be made. Her style which became a fusion of black-native themed art with neoclassic was one that she also cultivated to limit the idea of a self-portraiture since most of her audience were white.
While in Rome Lewis explored themes of racism and her heritage both as black and Native American in her works like Forever Free focused on the emancipation of slavery and The Arrow Maker which explored her heritage.
Due to the uniqueness of her style Lewis was faced with the challenge of being in competition with male sculptors who at this point saw female sculpture as being a mimicry of original male sculptures or ideas, lacking authenticity and therefore of less value.
In the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia she exhibited The Death of Cleopatra, a Neo-classical masterpiece, one of her most poweful works. As a work eclipses (in a way) classical art and speaks of all that Lewis stands for as an artist acknowledging her race and quest for balance in a field dominated by men.
Lewis has been regarded as one of the most influential African-American artists of all time with her works still in various institutions including the Smithsonian Institute. It is important to note that Edmonia Lewis is the first black-native sculptor to gain international recognition within the niche of Western art.