Intersectionality is a theory and practice of looking at systems and their interactions. It originally emerged from the investigations into the interactions of oppressive systems and how the marginalization of people and groups was further intrenched through layers of prejudice and discrimination. For example, people have been historically discriminated against because of their skin colour (i.e. systems of segregation that existed in the United States of America during the first half of the 20th century) and others have been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. What the theory of intersectionality begins to do is investigate the place where these two systems of oppression overlap, and asks questions of how various aspects of a person’s identity interact. It is not just a case that you are white or black, or gay or straight; but begins to look at the differences of being a black straight person or a white gay person. You can begin to further layer one’s identify to include one’s sex and you begin to see additional characteristics of what makes someone unique and individual.
The theory of intersectionality and understanding it in relationship to the theme of Place is that when we look at the psychological place of the artist, we can see these intersections informing the creation of artworks. Who we are as people shapes what and how we produce as artists.
A great example of intersectionality at work is Edmonia Lewis, an 18th Century African-Hatian-Ojibwae artist. Born in New York State in 1844 to a Hatian father who was a gentleman’s servant and a Mississauga Ojiwae artisan mother, Lewis would use this cultural intersection to inspire much of her work. It is also important to understand her life experiences and how they also shape who Lewis would become as an artist later in life.
At the age of 9 both of her parents died, and she was taken in by her mother’s sister, becoming closer with her Ojibwae heritage. She even started going by her First Nation’s name, Wildflower. After her brother left for California, and sent money home for Lewis, she was able to attend a Baptist abolitionist school where she attended for approximately 3 years. Starting in 1859 Lewis attended Oberlin College, which was one of the first places of higher learning to accept women and people of various ethnic backgrounds. It was at this time that Lewis began to go by her more recognized name, Mary Edmonia Lewis.
Her years at Oberlin College were not easy as the American Civil War started. Lewis made many friends during this time and as one story goes, she and some friends were to go sleigh riding one afternoon. Her friends became ill, and Lewis was wrongly accused of poisoning them. Prior to her trial she was abused by a mob, suffering several injuries. Just prior to her final term at Oberlin, Lewis was also accused of stealing art supplies, and was not permitted to finish her education. It was at this time that she moved to Boston, Massachusetts.
In Boston, she met renowned abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and sculptor Edward A. Brackett. Her she learned the art of sculpture with Bracketts guidance and support. She would eventually set up her own studio, making medallions of important abolitionists and most notably Civil War hero Colonel Robert Shaw of the all black 54th Massachusetts regiment. Her success in Boston, both artistically and financially allowed her to become independent and move to Rome to further her career.
Much of her mature work focussed on integrating themes of African and First Nations into the then highly popular Neoclassical style of art, as seen in her sculpture Forever Free and Arrow Maker.
- Identify as many aspects of Edmonia Lewis’s identity that influenced her work. Use her short biography provided above, or further expand your learning by doing some research of your own.
- Identify the intersectionality of your own identity.
- Explain how the various dimensions of your identity influence what you choose to represent in your work, and how you choose to represent it (i.e. subject matter and style).