I Am My Own Commodity

Edmonia Lewis While the economy may be perking up, the recession we’re still climbing out of has made one thing clear; if you need to earn a living, you’ve got to think entrepreneurially. Read enough success stories about former executives who’ve become cupcake moguls and a path becomes clear: take the dreams and skills you have, along with whatever compelling back story you can point to and exploit them in whatever media you have access to. If you’ve ever thought about branding and/or marketing yourself, you might learn something from this photograph of the American sculptor, Edmonia Lewis. As Jacqueline Serwer, chief curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), described it for a story in click! photography changes everything, this small, cardboard-mounted promotional piece was circulated by Lewis to create buzz and build an audience and financial support for her ambitious sculptural works.

The Death of Cleopatra In addition to commissioning this carte-de-visite from Henry Rocher, one of Chicago’s better known portrait photographers, Lewis also took out an advertisement in the Chicago Tribune, promoting the return of the “young and gifted Colored Sculptor of Rome, Italy.” The public was invited to purchase tickets to view Lewis’ sculpture and meet the artist, herself. This novel strategy was clever and profitable; by Lewis’ own reckoning, she earned $6,000 in admission and raffle sales in Chicago, and the growing interest her publicity and the work itself soon led to its display in exhibitions in California and inclusion in the Fine Art section of the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. While it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that film star Elizabeth Taylor could proudly proclaimed “I am my own commodity,” Lewis’ photograph and marketing scheme are reminders of the creative ways 19th century women engineered their own pathways to success.  

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