Image credit: Legacy.com
July 31, 2022—Dr. Samella Lewis was a visionary artist, curator, scholar, and historian, who not only imagined opportunities for African-American artists that did not exist, but also dedicated her life to creating them. She recently died in California at the age of 99.
A native of New Orleans, Dr. Lewis began drawing as a way to cope with the challenging realities of growing up in a segregated and racist south. She attended Dillard University, where she met her eventual mentors—the renowned artists Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White. Dr. Lewis pursued more education, eventually becoming the first African-American to receive a doctorate degree in fine arts and art history from Ohio State University.
She also was the founder of the National Conference of Artists in 1959, a professional association of African-American visual artists that remains active today.
In 1975, Dr. Lewis and two others founded Black Art: An International Quarterly, which was later renamed International Review of African American Art. A few years later, she wrote the book, Art: African American. At that time, the only book about African-American art was published in 1948. Dr. Lewis’s book was updated and republished in 2003 as African-American Art and Artists.
Among Dr. Lewis’s many other accomplishments are the establishment of numerous gallery spaces and a museum of African-American arts, which is in Los Angeles. She later made films about African-American artists; taught at several universities, and she continued to blaze trails that impacted the lives of those artists throughout the United States.
As an artist, Dr. Lewis produced paintings and sculpture throughout her career. One of her most recognized works is Field, a linocut print that shows a solitary man standing in a sunny field, with a clenched fist—a symbol of both solidarity and defiance, in honor of slaves and migrant workers.
Of her work, Dr. Lewis told the told the Los Angeles Times in 1995, “Art is a language like poetry, evoking sensitivities and memories.” She shares more about her process and her work in a short film about her life, which you can find at this link.
Dr. Lewis’s work is part of the permanent collections of several 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 she became the first tenured African-American professor in 1970.
Dr. Lewis’s efforts were the catalyst for the recognition of the value of art from the African diaspora and its contributions to the global art canon. She paved the way for the change in how African-American art was taught and studied throughout the United States. Dr. Lewis also inspired and fostered legions of artists, curators, critics, and art historians, who continue to further her efforts.