On February 4, 2016, we sat down with Kirsten Pai Buick, the 2015 winner of the High Museum of Art’s Driskell Prize, who was in Atlanta to give a talk at the High Museum that evening. Buick, an associate professor of art history at the University of New Mexico, would speak about 19th-century artist Edmonia Lewis, Catholicism, and race. Her scholarship around Lewis and other African American artists, such as Robert Duncanson and Henry Ossawa Tanner, is paradigm-shifting and her methods are applicable to contemporary issues and the teaching of art history. She chatted with us about a number of topics, including the practice of responsive art history, Lewis’s own racism, and the problem of Kara Walker.
Stephanie Cash: Is this a talk you’ve given before?
Kirsten Pai Buick: No, it’s a commissioned piece that will be published by Penn State. There was a session at CAA [College Art Association] many years ago about African American artists and spirituality. The organizers found the panel very successful, so they presented the idea to the press [Pennsylvania State University Press]. In order to supplement the panel material, they commissioned more articles from people who hadn’t participated, and they wanted my take on Edmonia Lewis and Catholicism.
Carl Rojas: What made you interested in Edmonia Lewis? I saw you wrote a forward for the catalogue of Walter Evans’s collection. He’s got an amazing collection of not just art, but books and records…
KPB: … and the manuscripts. I visited his home when he was in Rose Point, Michigan, way back in the day. He had commissioned Andrea Barnwell Brownlee to put together that catalogue. It’s the second catalogue based on his collection, and he wanted Andrea to spearhead it. She commissioned me to do the piece on 19th-century African American artists.
CR: And Edmonia Lewis was one of those artists?
KPB: Walter has one of her first iterations of the Wooing of Hiawatha. Bill Cosby has the other one. They came as a pair.
CR: He talked about how, at auctions, it would very often be him and Cosby going after the same pieces.
KPB: The first time I ever had access to Cosby’s collection was when it was shown at the Smithsonian, so I had never seen his Edmonia Lewis or his [Henry Ossawa] Tanner.
CR: Were you interested in Edmonia before you wrote that essay for the Evans collection?
KPB: Yeah, in 1990, I was at the University of Michigan and my professor, David Huntington, didn’t know how to teach African American art, so he decided to have a symposium for his graduate students. One of the speakers was Rick Powell [professor of art and art history at Duke University]. After the conference was over, I asked Rick what needs doing, and he said Edmonia Lewis. I said okay.
SC: And just like that…
KPB: So yes, I’ve been working on her since 1990.
SC: Did you know much about her before that?
CR: She was half black, half Native American?
KPB: That’s what she said.
CR: Help me understand what you refer to in your book as the problem of art history’s black subject?
KPB: I use the word problem in two ways — the historical retrieval of that word as a designation given to citizens who are not white males — so throughout the 19th century we read about the “woman question” or the “woman problem.” Or you’ll read about the “Indian problem” or the “Indian question.” The same with African Americans. So I was using problem in that way and saying that art history still has those problems. If you aren’t a white male artist, you’re expected to reproduce your identity very simply in your art. If you’re a woman, you’re expected re-present your ovaries, if you have race you’re expected to re-present your race in your artwork.
SC: And you’re specifically saying “re-present” … hyphenated.
KPB: Yes. And the second way I was using problem was based on Michael Baxandall’s book Patterns of Intention. He expressly states that he is not trying to reproduce an artist’s psychological state when they created something. Instead, he was treating the artwork as a solution to a problem and a situation. He says, if you can isolate those three things — the solution, the problem, the situation — you can understand the historical context of objects. That’s why my book is really two books in one — I try to figure out how she’s been represented in art history but also what the significance is of her various representations of identity or even her artwork, and that those two can’t be read as the same thing.