Samella Lewis, artist, curator and historian whose writings shaped the history of African-American art, has died at age 98. She died on Friday, according to the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, founded by Lewis.
In his art and writing, Lewis sought to preserve aspects of the African-American experience that had been largely ignored by the larger institutions of the United States. His work inspired legions of artists, critics, curators and art historians who succeeded him, and was considered crucial to the way black art is studied in the country today. .
Lewis’s books, including Black artists on art (1969) and Art: African American (1978), are believed to have been among the first surveys of this kind. The first was published by a publishing house Lewis herself started, Contemporary Crafts, because many of the top art book publishers didn’t think it would find an audience, she recalls a day.
Whether Black artists on artwith its 150 interviews, was already ambitious, given the lack of resources available to Lewis, Art: African American was an epic undertaking. It marked an attempt to map the age-old value of artistic creation, beginning with the African-American craft traditions of the 17th century and culminating in the book work then present. Jacob Lawrence, the artist best known for a cycle of paintings known as “The Migration Series”, wrote the foreword to this book.
“African American artists today are energetic participants in the Cultural Revolution,” Lewis wrote. “Driven by both social and aesthetic needs, the African-American artist seeks cultural identity, self-discovery, and self-understanding.”
In her own art, Lewis continued the project she had begun in her writing, producing images that were reflections on the African-American experience of the past and present.
“Art is a language like poetry, evoking sensibilities and memories,” she said. say it Los Angeles Times in 1995.
Curator Naima J. Keith once describe Lewis’s art as “pictorial manifestations of the era of civil rights and black liberation”.
In one of his most famous works, the 1968 linocut Field, a black laborer is depicted in a field in front of a bright sun. The figure holds a fist in the air, evoking a symbol used in Black Power protests by activists. Although this symbol is rooted in recent history, Lewis evokes the days of slavery through the middle of the work.
His 1969 painting royal sacrificeanother well-known work that appeared on the cover of Art: African American, manifests a more ambiguous mood. In it, a mother stands behind a child. In the background hovers a mower. The check alludes to long-standing traditions, but the mother’s afro hairstyle is contemporary.
“The young mother her son by the shoulders, trying to keep him from his fate, but her expression is one of resignation,” writes art historian Kellie Jones in her 2017 book South of Pico: African-American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. “This sentiment, of course, was prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s, when young black people were killed in their quest for social freedoms.”
Because Lewis’s prints were frequently reproduced in literature, they were widely viewed. And yet, Lewis’s art is not as commonly exhibited in institutions as those of his colleagues.
Lewis’ work is held in museums including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Ruth Chandler Williams Gallery at Scripps College, where Lewis became the first tenured black professor in 1970. in the historic show “Now dig that! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980which first appeared at the Hammer Museum in 2011.
“Who Are They and Where Are They”
Samella Sanders Lewis was born in New Orleans on February 27, 1924. She had never intended to become an artist when she went to Dillard University, a historically black university in the city of Louisiana, but she found herself drawn to it when she took lessons with sculptor Elizabeth Catlett and her husband, artist Charles White.
Lewis has often cited Catlett as one of her main inspirations, as she brought the likes of singer Paul Robeson into her classes and imparted so much wisdom from the start.
“One of the big things I learned in Elizabeth’s course is that you don’t paint people without knowing something about them, who they are, and where they are,” Lewis said in a 1992 oral history for the University of California at Los Angeles.
After two years at Dillard University, Lewis went to Hampton Institute in Virginia, where she continued to study with Catlett. She went on to earn a doctorate in art history from The Ohio State University and taught at two other historically black colleges and universities, Morgan State University in Baltimore and Florida Agricultural & Medical University in Tallahassee. At the latter university, she organized the first-ever conference for African-American artists.
In her studies of art history, Lewis often focused on Chinese art, which she considered not to be entirely separate from African art, given that Africans can be spotted in the historical works. She spent three years in Taiwan on a Fulbright scholarship, then returned to the United States as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
For a brief period beginning in 1968, Lewis worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she became an education coordinator amid a push by activist groups to have better black representation within American institutions. Yet Lewis resigned two years later when it became apparent that LACMA would not change as quickly as some had hoped.
Create a network
The rest of Lewis’s career was spent outside of institutions as large as LACMA, which have historically been slow to recognize his outsize impact on black artists and historians. One of his first solo exhibitions was in 1969 at the Brockman Gallery in Los Angeles, considered by some to be the first black gallery in the United States, and a number of Lewis’s initiatives in the late 1960s have been realized through publishing houses, museums and galleries that she herself created.
Among these initiatives was the review Black Art: An International Quarterlywhich she started with Val Spaulding and Jan Jemison in 1975. (It is still in print as the International Journal of African-American Art.) Much of the funding and support came from the local black community, with the Brockman Gallery advertising its exhibitions in its pages and artist Camille Billops helping to raise funds for it.
Meanwhile, Black artists on art, the 1969 book, was also supplemented by a series of films featuring interviews with Lewis, John Outterbridge and Bernie Casey which were distributed by Lewis’s publishing house, Contemporary Crafts. And with Casey, Lewis launched Multi-Cul, a commercial gallery that offered Betye Saar one of her first exhibitions. All the while, Lewis was teaching at Scripps College.
In 1975 Lewis founded the Museum of African American Art, eventually bringing in Mary Jane Hewitt to help oversee the space. Unlike the California African American Museum, which at the time positioned itself as a history museum, the Museum of African American Art was purely devoted to visual culture. The latter institution currently has one of the richest collections of works by Harlem Renaissance painter Palmer Hayden.
“They have probably the best collection of any African-American museum, a permanent collection, in this country,” Lewis said in his oral history at UCLA.
Lewis continued to remain active in the decades that followed, publishing a monograph by Catlett in 1984 and a book by Richmond Barthé in 2009.
In recent decades, Lewis has been recognized by various institutions, including UNICEF, which presented her with a visual arts award in 1995. In 2021, the College Art Association, where Lewis had once served on the publications committee, gave him his esteemed life. achievement award. That same year, his work was featured in the LACMA survey”Black American Portraits.”
“Looking back, I’m not really proud of anything I’ve done,” Lewis wrote in the catalog for the 2017 show “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” “I’m not proud. I just do what I have to do, and it happens, then I move on to the next thing. Compiling these books on black artists and writing the history of African American art was not done for career goals, it was a necessity.