By Skye Jalal
At Oberlin, it can be easy to forget just how old these buildings are. This past week, yétúndé ọlágbajú visited the campus as a part of the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s visiting artist program. Their stay here entailed two studio workshops, a performative lecture delivered at the museum, and the creation of a collaborative artwork now housed in the Edmonia Lewis Center on South Campus. Olágbajú is a multidisciplinary artist from Oakland, California. Their work deals with themes of ancestry, labor, and healing. It is described as “rooted in the need to understand history, the people that made it, the myths and realities surrounding them, and how their own identity is implicated in history’s timeline — past, present, and future.”
All of the work ọlágbajú did at Oberlin was in honor of Mary Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis, a prominent Black and Native American sculptor of the late 19th century and former Oberlin student. Edmonia Lewis attended Oberlin College beginning in 1859 and lived on the second floor of Keep Cottage. In 1862, Lewis was accused of poisoning her two white roommates’ wine. She was attacked and brutalized by a white mob over the incident in the backyard of Keep Cottage before her case went to trial. Represented by another Oberlin alum, John Mercer Langston, Lewis was eventually acquitted of all charges relating to the alleged poisoning. However, Lewis was later accused of stealing supplies from the art department and was barred by the administration under Marianne Dascomb from enrolling in her final semester. After Oberlin, Lewis received the support of abolitionists to continue her artistic practice in Boston, before moving to London, then Florence, and eventually establishing a sculpture studio in Rome. Edmonia Lewis received great critical acclaim for her work in marble sculpture, becoming the first professional Afro-Indigenous sculptor and one of the only female sculptors practicing in Rome at the time.
Yétúndé ọlágbajú became acquainted with Edmonia Lewis several years ago when encountering an image of Lewis on their Instagram feed. Olágbajú quickly realized certain physical similarities the two shared, and in further research, would recognize similarities in their geography and life experiences. While in residence with This Will Take Time In 2020, this kinship with Edmonia Lewis eventually culminated in the “For Edmonia” project: a cultivation of different writings, artworks, and even a library program in honor of Lewis. Included was the limited edition release of a print, one of which was acquired by the AMAM in 2021.
Olágbajú’s work in the Allen deals deeply with the concept of positives and negatives. The piece is a color screen print of a paper collage composed of images of Edmonia Lewis’s work and Lewis herself. The work’s central figure is the silhouette of a bust resembling Lewis, shaped out of cropped and layered images of her marble works. Much of the bust’s facial area is bare; a hole is left, exposing the black paper underneath. To the right of the central figure is a photo of Lewis herself, with an irregular shape giving the effect that it was ripped out of something larger. In the lower section of the artwork, are two square-shaped images of marble detailing. It can be assumed that these are cropped images of Lewis’s work, yet their dismemberment makes it unclear to which pieces they belong. The question of memory, and the combination of fact and myth that comprises it, is prevalent in this work. The collage is an honoring of both Edmonia Lewis as she was and of her modern understanding, recreated through her artwork and history. ọlágbajú acknowledges the gap between those two entities. The collage centers not the image of Edmonia Lewis but a muddled reconstruction of her with something missing in the middle. It establishes the difference between who Edmonia Lewis was and who we know her to be, and upholds both truths as essential in creating her legacy.
Olágbajú’s time with the Oberlin community began Wednesday with two cyanotype printing workshops. When workshop attendees arrived, ọlágbajú had arranged an array of positive and negative images of Edmonia Lewis, her work, and memorial candles and flowers printed onto transparency paper. Groups worked to cut out the images and layer them into collages on pretreated cyanotype fabric. Some people chose to only trim away the excess material around the images, some cut out specific parts or objects from the images, and some cut out their own shapes with hearts, stars, and abstract lines. After arranging the collages, the groups put the fabric under UV light, causing the exposed part of the printed transparency to turn the fabric blue and the unexposed to remain white, recreating the images on the fabric. Olágbajú spoke about enjoying printmaking and collage since both practices resemble Lewis’s work in marble. Counterintuitively, printmaking and collage are in ways more akin to marble than even other forms of sculpture. Unlike working with clay, when you cut or carve something away, you can’t put it back. You have to be able to envision something and cut it out from its excess. Printmaking, like marble sculpture, isn’t decided by what you create but by what you take away.
On Thursday, ọlágbajú delivered a lecture at the King Sculpture Court of the AMAM. To begin, they asked the audience, “Who do you bring with you?” The question is a call to consider the multiple lives, ancestral or living, that comprise every individual identity. It resurfaced again at the end of the lecture when ọlágbajú asked the audience to open envelopes left on each seat. Inside were a pencil, a slip of paper, and a bead. Olágbajú asked us to write down who we envisioned “bringing” with us and a word or phrase to express an intention towards that presence. The audience then gathered outside in a circle on the north lawn of the AMAM, and ọlágbajú guided us to speak that word or intention into our beads. Olágbajú then came around and strung each bead in our hands to the next as we spoke our intention to the group. The string spread out wide across the entire expanse of the lawn, connecting us all from a distance. Then, ọlágbajú came and collected the string from our hands, allowing the beads to fall on each other. The beads that once stretched almost the length of the building then only rested upon a couple of short feet of string. Olágbajú called us to consider how this practice is symbolic of how even though we may have come into the space from wildly different backgrounds, much of our intentions are rooted in the same place.
During their studio hours, ọlágbajú was sewing the rectangles of fabric printed during the workshops into a quilt as a group of students sat around them stringing more beads. I spoke with them about how the discussion of Lewis’s legacy has been difficult for me to process. On the one hand, I have an urge to scream her name from every rooftop on this campus to make everyone reckon with the trauma she experienced here. On the other hand, I have this question of how much her name is even ours to speak about. Just as ọlágbajú’s piece in the Allen conveys, I also can feel the parts of Edmonia Lewis’s legacy that have been lost and rearranged. Much of the discussion on this campus centers around rectifying the blatant injustices she faced here, but what about how she took her coffee? What type of music did she like? What used to make her smile? There are so many things about her that we don’t know. After already being held critically responsible for the sins of this campus, why must her name also be held responsible for its redemption? What can be added back, when so much has been taken away?
The statement about intention on the AMAM lawn was very poignant for me because the entire time I had been wondering how many of those same white hands beading the strand would have mobilized to protect Edmonia Lewis a century ago. The Allen Museum has a single work of Lewis’s, a marble bust of James Peck Thomas. I can’t decide whether or not I feel it belongs there, less than half a mile down the street from the backyard where she was almost beaten to death.
How does this campus initiate the process of atonement for someone who is no longer alive to accept its forgiveness? Experiencing ọlágbajú’s work, in its deliberate, respectful, and intentional exploration of honor and memory- was the first time I began to feel that there may be a way to. It is a process that was already initiated by black faculty who have kept Lewis’s legacy alive on this campus for decades, and continued by the black students who championed the reinstatement of the Edmonia Lewis Center in 2021. Whether that process will be continued by the rest of the Oberlin community, or whether those who strung beads in Lewis’s name will also protect the black women on this campus who are still alive, is yet to be known.