Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History's Black and Indian Subject/Remaking Race and History: The Sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller/Making Race: Modernism and "Racial Art" in America

By Ott, John | The Art Bulletin, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History's Black and Indian Subject/Remaking Race and History: The Sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller/Making Race: Modernism and "Racial Art" in America


Ott, John, The Art Bulletin


KIRSTEN PAI BUICK Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History's Black and Indian Subject Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010. 297 pp.; 16 color ills., 33 b/w. $94.95, $25.95 paper

RENÉE ATER Remaking Race and History: The Sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 214 pp.; 8 color ills., 63 b/w. $49.95

JACQUELINE FRANCIS Making Race: Modernism and "Racial Art" in America Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012. 256 pp.; 12 color ills., 47 b/w. $40.00 paper

Three recent books by Kirsten Buick, Renée Ater, and Jacqueline Francis exemplify what Francis terms "critical race art history" (p. 13): carefully contextualized analyses of minority cultural production that work against transhistorical and essentialist conceptions of race and gender. At the same time, they also undertake the more difficult project of examining the artists' participation in and even compliance with dominant culture. As such, they are important not only for the history of African American art but also for the larger history of the art of the United States. These volumes thus represent vital early efforts to create a kind of "post-black" art history. In her text for the 2001 Freestyle exhibition, curator Thelma Golden first applied this designation to contemporary "artists who were adamant about not being labeled as 'black' artists, though their work was steeped, in fact, deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness."' Admittedly, "post-black" is a charged and highly problematic nomenclature, evoking as it does disingenuous ideas about a color-blind United States of America, even though few of its advocates would ever intend or sanction such usage. The limitations of this terminology only hint at the significant challenges facing those who would redraw the an historical map.

Kirsten Pai Buick's long-awaited book on mixed-race nineteenth-century sculptor Edmonia Lewis is the culmination of a body of work that began with a now-classic 1995 essay in the journal American Art.2 Because she has taken on the task of writing "two books that are mutually supporting and interdependent" (p. xiii), Buick interlaces her reconsideration of Lewis with extended critiques of the ways in which the discipline perpetuates long-standing stereotypes of minority art. In the preface, "Framing the Problem," she outlines the aims of her project with the aid of epigraphs quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, and Toni Morrison. The "child of the fire" quotation from Emerson signals Buick's desire to position Lewis not as a passive recipient of cultural discourse but as an active agent who tactically performed and negotiated her social identity. Douglass's famous public denunciation of the very concept of a "Negro Problem" at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, together with Morrison's critique of the marginalization of minority subjects serve to highlight the stigmatization of African American, American Indian, and women artists within the discipline of art history.

The "problem of art history's black and Indian subject" that makes up the book's subtitle, therefore, shares much with Kobena Mercer's discussion of the "burden of representation" by which the artworks of subaltern artists are always expected to function as indices of racial, ethnic, or gender identity.3 By contrast, Buick maintains that Lewis's oeuvre was not concerned just with matters racial but also contributed to the same cultural trends that preoccupied her white contemporaries. In particular, the author illuminates the sculptor's investment in a search for a national, "American" art, as well as the "prevailing ideologies . . . [of] sentimentalism, true womanhood, and the vanishing American" (p. xvi).

In keeping with the author's goal of demonstrating Lewis's active management of her own vocation, chapter 1, "Inventing the Artist," frames her narrative of the artist's life as the story of her career rather than her biography, with its more passive associations. …

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Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History's Black and Indian Subject/Remaking Race and History: The Sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller/Making Race: Modernism and "Racial Art" in America
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