Q&A with Kirsten Pai Buick

By March 18, 2016
Left to right, Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Kirsten Pai Buick, and Arnika Dawkins at the panel discussion "On Being Black" at Spelman College, October 17, 2015. (Photo: Carl Rojas)
Left to right, Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Kirsten Pai Buick, and Arnika Dawkins at the panel discussion “On Being Black” at Spelman College, October 17, 2015. (Photo: Carl Rojas)

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.

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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…

Edmonia Lewis.
Edmonia Lewis.

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?

KPB: No.

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.

Edmonia Lewis, Hiawatha, 1868, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Edmonia Lewis, Hiawatha, 1868, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

CR: Right. Her intention and the interpretation are going in opposite directions.

KPB: Or she would make them go in the same direction. She was very canny about the racial politics of the various places she lived, and she played to those expectations to a certain degree. But because art history is so invested in either presenting her as an exotic or as a subversive, they don’t know what to do when they see her playing the game. That’s why one of her interviews is so interesting. She is in San Francisco, talking to the press, and she calls the Plains Indians “dirty.”

CR: Really?

KPB: And no one has ever touched that, except for me, as far as I know. Because they don’t know what to do with it. They are so busy trying to prop her up as this hero, or as this exotic — how can an exotic object exoticise … other exotics? And so, both ways of situating her kick her out of a historical context.

SC: What did she mean by that?

KPB: She is Anishinaabe, she’s a Chippewa, and so for her it was a way of separating herself from the Plains Indians.

CR: Elevating her tribe above the Plains Indians.

KPB: That’s right, because that was the second civil war that happened after the Civil War — the Plains Wars. So, to go to San Francisco and pander, and maybe actually believe that “my nation is different from their nation …” One of the things I always tell my students is, when you write art history, don’t write heroes, you have to write villains. It allows students to nuance and gain a perspective on their subject that you don’t often get.

SC: Do you mean to write about certain people in a different way, or to write about different people?

KPB: It is a kind of tactical change of perspective. Just because you are writing about this artist and your propensity is to create a narrative structure the way that we structure our stories: beginning, middle, end. A crisis is an opportunity for you to push back against traditional readings, but if you write a villain you’re not artificially heroicizing this person, which again kicks them out of their historical context. It’s just a mental trick, you don’t write them as a moustache-twirling devil, you just … write a villain.

CR: So religion was one of the ways she saw herself that was clearly not racially motivated? How did that show up in her work? Did she leave writings behind?

KPB: She didn’t leave a lot. We have maybe three or four letters written by her. And once her abolitionist patronage dried up at the end of the Civil War, and abolitionists turned their attention back to Native American issues, she was off living in Italy and Paris, speaking fluent Italian and French, going to the opera, and being patronized by English Catholics and American Catholics. They become her primary means of support. Her estate was worth maybe 60,000 pounds when she died in London.

Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free, 1867, representing the emancipation of slaves after the Civil War.
Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free, 1867, representing the emancipation of slaves after the Civil War.

SC: How would you describe her work?

KPB: Well, there are the technical issues with her early works — very awkward — and it has to do with the way artists were trained in the 19th century. They were just given clay and asked to copy works of art. Then there were the impediments she faced as a woman artist in the 19th century. Women were automatically done when they hired studio help. The workshop method was something we are familiar with from the Renaissance and Andy Warhol — you hire people more skilled than you to realize your conceptions. In the 19th century, it was as though women couldn’t do the conceptual work. The Italian carvers that they had in their studios were credited with everything.

There were a couple of instances where women artists experienced this prejudice. The first was Harriet Hosmer. They accused her of not doing any conceptual work for her Zenobia in chains. Lydia Maria Child wrote a very long editorial in the Atlantic Monthly saying that she did do her own conceptual work, that this is how workshops and studios operate in Europe. Another artist, Anne Whitney, won a competition for the memorial sculptor for Senator Sumner but wasn’t allowed to actually finish the commission even though she won. She made an anonymous submission and beat out August St. Gaudens, but they said a woman could not sculpt the limbs of a man. And so her statue didn’t go up in Springfield in 1875. It went up in bronze 25 years later in Cambridge.

It’s a little bit later that Lewis does hire studio help, and her work gets more refined in terms of content — it was always based on Longfellow. And yet it continues to be read as autobiographical, and it’s not. It’s just her playing to the literary tastes of the time.

Anne Whitney's sculpture of Senator Charles Sumner in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Anne Whitney’s sculpture of abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

SC: What was the response subsequent to that? Has anyone besides you asserted that her work was not autobiographical?

KPB: No, they read her work as strictly autobiographical. But they always questioned why the women looked white in her sculptures, and they also read her as a proto-feminist, as representing the double oppression of black women. But she wasn’t doing that at all. She was simply reiterating the Victorian hierarchy of the husband as the head of the household.

CR: Are you saying that she is essentially representing the white Western tradition more so than her own?

KPB: I’m saying that her tradition is the white one. One of the proofs that I give in my book about art history’s problem with the black and Indian subject is the way the art historians have read Robert Duncanson’s landscapes, where there are no black figures but they continue to read those landscapes racially because they know the artist is black.

CR: What about contemporary artists who dislike being called “black artists,” even though their work directly addresses issues of race? Why is it that we feel as if we have to put their work in that racial paradigm?

KPB: Because we are a problem, right, every one of us sitting here is a “problem,” and we are therefore placeholders for white male creators. So you know that is one of the ways of handling strong visual artists, to say that they’re black so that they’re not taking anybody’s place.

SC: A white’s place?

KPB: A white man’s place. One of the ways you have to understand landscape is that it erases as much as it reveals. Landscape representation, especially U.S. landscape representation, inherently is an eraser of Indian extermination and the exploitation of African labor on that land. So landscape and empire are automatically implicated.

I have a lot of students who work on Native American art, and I won’t let them use two words, “white people,” because it’s an inherently unstable category, constantly in the process of forming and reforming and negotiation, and I won’t let them use “Western,” because the “West” is the culmination of every awful thing that it has done to people and groups of people.

SC: That’s hard to work around.

KPB: But they can do it, they can be retrained. If they use the term “white people,” I start with, “What do you mean by that? Who exactly are you talking about?,” and they gradually go, “Well, okay, I mean a New Mexico rancher who identifies as Spanish without knowing what Spain represents to the rest of Europe.”

CR: Theaster Gates said something interesting last night, that there can be no blackness without whiteness, and whiteness itself is typically assumed. You can assume it’s there even when it’s not written because that is our operational paradigm. So thinking about that, and the title to your book’s concluding chapter, “Responsive and Responsible Art History,” what does that look like? How do we change?

KPB: If I let my students just continue to talk about “white people,” that’s flat and unresponsive. It’s unresponsive to the times and holds no real critique of the present, and they’re talking about something that doesn’t exist. In the interest of specificity for those groups they are concerned with — there’s a book by Phillip Fisher called Hard Fact: Setting and Form in the American Novel, in which he talks about how Native Americans were just gradually just chipped away at, so that their specificity is erased and they go from being sovereign nations to de-tribalization to domestic dependents who are neither citizen or free. They lose all specificity so that the federal government can deal with them all in one way. So we have to be specific. That’s what a responsive art history is — it’s specific and it doesn’t rest on fake monoliths.

CR: When you read art historical texts and criticism, do you mark it up for these things?

KPB: Yes.

SC: That must be nearly everything.

KPB: I’ll send you some of my book reviews. [Laughter]. Actually, I was asked to review the [Henry Ossawa Tanner] catalogue for the recent exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. That catalogue is a mess, because they repeat anecdotes, the same anecdotes, because we only have a few from Tanner, because Tanner refused to be swept up in the racialist games of the U.S. He was much smarter about race than any of his contemporaries. He wanted to be free, so he expatriated to France, and in France they really didn’t talk about him as a black artist, and he loved that.

CR: I saw a thing you posted on Facebook about  at what age does someone become intimidated and threatened by the image of a black face, and it was five years old. These fears and conditions are so embedded in all of our social structures, so where do you find the energy to keep charging on?

KPB: Because that is my form of therapy. Re-presenting patterns, recognizing patterns in systems of representation, and I can do it for my students as well.

CR: Which writers do you respect who have a grasp of these issues and writing in a responsible way? Who is influential to you?

KPB: It was Elsa Barkley Brown, a historian who was at the University of Michigan and is now at the University of Maryland – College Park. It was Sharon Patton, who was at the University of Michigan and wrote the Oxford survey that’s about to be supplanted, African-American Art. Lisa Farrington’s revision of that is coming out this year.

SC: You mentioned you have another book coming out. When is that going to be?

KPB: It’s called In Authenticity: ‘Kara Walker’ and the Eidetics Of Racism [Duke University Press].

SC: Why the scare quotes around Kara Walker?

KPB: It’s about the systems put in place that function to make her an important artist. So it’s advanced placement art history, it’s the gallery system, it’s the museums, it is programming that happens around her shows.

SC: Do you think she is an important artist or she is being held up by that system?

CR: Or is she exploiting those?

KPB: Those aren’t mutually exclusive; she is being propped up because she’s exploiting racialist representation.

CR: Back to writers. I think it’s fair to say that critical writing falls along a spectrum of those who are just old school and have blinders on and those who are much more open to being challenged and continue to evolve in how the present ideas and artists. Any names you want to throw out there?

KPB: I’m looking forward to reading Christa Thompson’s new book on the African Diaspora called “Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice. I don’t read a lot of art history.

SC: That’s interesting, so what’s on your student’s reading list?

KPB: I have them reading Sharon Patton’s text and a lot of supplementary materials, but I teach my African American art class as an introduction to critical racial theory. I start out by asking them: why are we doing this, and what are the pitfalls or the benefits to assigning race to any creative practice? What does it mean to assign race to creative practice?

A lot of the class comprises institutional critique. I tell them war stories of the museum, I worked at the Art Institute of Chicago in museum education for four years and I know why they don’t have a lot of abstract art by African American artists.

SC: And that’s because…?

KPB: Because the curatorial imperative has never been towards African American abstraction. They are very traditional in their belief that it’s made by mainly white men who are capable of executing the mind, hand, and genius of abstraction.

SC: So when it comes to African American art they want “Black Art.”

KPB: They want small paintings that don’t take up a lot of wall space with the black subject. They have a work by Kerry James Marshall that has the black figure writ large, and they finally purchased an Ed Clark but it took them forever, they never show the Alma Thomas they have.

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CR: What is the racial makeup of your class? Do you get a lot of non-black students?

KPB: Most of my students are Hispanic, white, I get a few African Americans sometimes.

CR: How does that change the class? Or does it?

KPB: It doesn’t, they come out more sensitive. They tell me all the time how I changed the way they look at things. They’re very grateful. I start out by telling them race is nothing to be afraid of, it is nothing to fear, and this is how it works. And they get it.

I teach African American art, that’s what they think they’re signing up for, but it is actually critical race theory fed through the visual, as fed through the gallery system and museum system, and the invention of an art market in this country that happened intensively in the 1870s, where artistic technique is both gendered and racialized and nationalized.

SC: Why was that?

KPB: Because they needed to believe that the identity of the creator is reflected in not just representation but in the work. When they would put a Cecilia Beaux next to a John Singer Sargent, they would talk about her brushwork as soft and pathetic and they would talk about his as masculine and aggressive, as if that male/female divide happens on the level of brush work.

On left, Sita and Sarita (detail) by Cecilia Beaux, c. 1921, and, on right, Mrs. Cecil Wade by John Singer Sargent, 1886.
Left, Sita and Sarita (detail) by Cecilia Beaux, c. 1921. Right, Mrs. Cecil Wade by John Singer Sargent, 1886.

SC: Do you think there are differences?

KPB: No, you throw up a Cecilia Beaux and John Singer Sargent for students, they can’t tell which is made by a woman.

SC: Do you know of any instances where these kinds of distinctions are accurate?

KPB: Do you know of any? A woman doesn’t hold a paintbrush differently or apply it to the canvas differently than a man.

SC: But the artists may be going for different effects.  

KPB: That means there has been some kind of acculturation to that difference that causes them to believe this, and then that gets reiterated by the critics.

CR: So, in terms of reframing the art history discussion around anyone who’s not white…..

KPB: Or anyone who’s not male….

CR: How do you present that idea in an accessible way, so that the average reader who isn’t indoctrinated in art theory gets it?

KPB: If I have to use a jargony word, I have failed. But if I can string out the concept demonstratively in my writing, then I have succeeded. So in my Lewis book or in any of my writings, I never use the jargon word  —  I use the explanation of the word. The test is to go back a week later and reread it, and if you can’t understand a word you’ve written, then it should not be printed.

CR: Did you always know you were going to be an art historian? How did that happen?

KPB: Okay, do you want the real answer?

SC and CR: Yeah!

KPB: When I was in college, totally out of my element, from the South Side of Chicago and suddenly at the University of Chicago. I looked at the course catalogue and realized that no art history classes met before 10am.

SC and CR: [Laughs]

KPB: I thought, “what a civilized major!” So that is the shallow answer and the real one. The other answer is that I just came to love it.

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