In an age when many statues and sculptures in the public realm are being scrutinised due to their links with colonialism, it is refreshing to discover the work of Edmonia Lewis, a 19th century African America female sculpture who achieve international acclaim at a time when slavery was still legal.
Mary Edmonia Lewis, also known as "Wildfire" was born free on July 4th 1844 in Albany, New York to an African America father and Chippewa Indian mother. She lost of both her parents at a young age and was brought up by her mother’s family, where she was given her Indian name – Wildfire - also receiving a college education, due largely to the fact that her brother, who was called Sunrise, was a professional gold-miner enabling him to finance her college fees.
Unsurprisingly, most of the early sculptures by Edmonia Lewis are of abolitionists, one of which - featuring Colonel Robert Gould Shaw – made her enough money to travel to Rome where she studied classical sculpture. She converted to Catholicism and she started to produce devotional pieces mainly in marble, which led to her talents becoming even better known in Europe.
Over the next three decades Edmonia would spend travelling between US, Rome, and Paris, enhancing her reputation with pieces like Forever Free, Madonna and Child and the two tonne sculpture The Death of Cleopatra.
In 1901, after spending five years in Paris, Edmonia Lewis moved to London eventually setting up home at 156 Blythe Road, Hammersmith, where she would remain for the rest of her life.
Much of her work is now on display in museums around the world including the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.