LGBT Pride Month at the Newark Museum
This June the Newark Museum celebrates Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Pride Month. As President Barack Obama explained in his 2010 proclamation: “We commemorate the courageous individuals who have fought to achieve this promise for LGBT Americans, and we rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The Museum is committed to recognizing the impact LGBT people have made on the arts. We recently formed a committee of staff members from various departments who are working together to develop meaningful programs that bring to light and celebrate the contributions made by LGBT artists and scientists as well as explore ways to expand our interpretive strategies to include issues related to LGBT life and experience.
We welcome community input and participation in this endeavor as we continue to evolve our programmatic and interpretive approaches. You can write to us at: email@example.com. To launch this initiative, every Friday this June we will feature on our blog the work of an LGBT artist on view in the American art permanent collection galleries. We hope that you enjoy these highlights.
–LGBT Committee, Newark Museum
Ulysses Dietz, Senior Curator/Curator of Decorative Arts
Shlomit Dror, Research Associate, American Art
Linda Nettleton, Senior Manager for Adult Learning and Public Programs
Mary-Kate O’Hare, Curator of American Art
William Peniston, Librarian
Jason Wyatt, Senior Preparator
Edmonia Lewis (1844-1911)
The daughter of an African American father and a Native American mother, Edmonia Lewis was educated at Oberlin College, studied sculpture in Boston, and eventually settled in Rome where she became a member of Charlotte Cushman’s “strange sisterhood” or “white marmorean flock,” as Henry James described this group of romantic friends. Cushman, who described herself as a “tomboy,” referred to Lewis as her “personal project”. Were the members of this “female world of love and ritual” lesbians? The term was not frequently used or clearly defined in the nineteenth century, but it might be an appropriate one.
Lewis’ sculptural works explore various themes relating to race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and class. In particular, she celebrated the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of the slaves through a series of portrait busts and thematic sculptures. She also created figures of Hiawatha and his wife Minnehaha, the hero and heroine of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem. A set of these figures is on display in the Newark Museum’s Picturing America galleries, where they are portrayed as strong, courageous, and noble, but with a significant element of sentimental tragedy. Her Death of Cleopatra caused quite a sensation at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and in it, she places “woman” at the center of her work, not necessarily a new emphasis for her. At one point, she wrote, “I have a strong sympathy for all women who have struggled and suffered.”
For the LGBT community, Lewis’ life and work raises questions about identity: Was she African American? Native American? abolitionist? feminist? romantic friend? lesbian? all of the above? Maybe she was simply an American woman. As Kirsten Pai Buick has written in a recent study on the “enigma” of Edmonia Lewis, “Lewis was thoroughly engaged by the search for a national art, and her participation in the discourse raises both the contingency of difference and the contingency of American culture.”
-By William Peniston, Ph.D, Librarian, the Newark Museum
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