The Death of Cleopatra: Three Movements for Edmonia Lewis

Presented June 3, 2017 at the 2017 West Park Arts Fest in Philadelphia, PA

The Death of Cleopatra, a 5.25 foot white marble statue was sculpted by Mary Edmonia Lewis for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The weighed almost two tons, and after its exhibition in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, it was later exhibited at the 1878 Chicago Exposition amid glowing reviews. A hundred years would pass before the sculpture would re-emerge at the grave of a racetrack owner’s favorite horse who was ironically named Cleopatra.

The Death of Cleopatra: Three Movements for Edmonia Lewisis a multi-media installation that explores the complicated history of the sculpture “The Death of Cleopatra” by sculptor Edmonia Lewis which exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition to much acclaim (100 year anniversary of the Centennial was acknowledged during this years festival). Lewis was the first woman of African-American, Haitian and Native American heritage to achieve international fame and recognition as a sculptor in the fine arts world.

I wanted to bring Lewis’ statue's memory back to Philadelphia where it was first shown and have the narrative of the work re-entered into the memory of the Parkside community through the sharing of Lewis’ story. I was able to engage with historical memory, location based interaction, and a longstanding Black community in Philadelphia in relation to this work on the occasion of the 100th year anniversary of the World’s Fair Centennial. 

Movement I - I traveled from Philadelphia, PA  to visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Luce Foundation Center for American Art in Washington, D.C. to view the The Death of Cleopatra for the first time.

Movement II - I visited the North Philadelphia Fletcher Street stables near my residence and spoke with one of their youngest horse owners and riders to share the story of Edmonia Lewis and the statue.

Movement III - I purchased two first edition publications related to the 1876 World's Fair; The 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair Centennial Exposition Described and Illustrated 1st by J. R Ingram and the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition World's Fair Guide Book to present to all of the Black members of the Parkside community for them to review for the first time. Whenever a member of the community entered my tent I told them the story of Edmonia, her sculpture and presented the books to them.

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