Samella Lewis, tireless champion of African-American art, dies at 99

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When Samella Lewis began teaching art history in the 1950s and 1960s, black artists were often excluded from major American museums, neglected in favor of European masters and white abstract expressionists. Artists of color had few opportunities to reach large audiences, she later recalled, and “there was no African American museum west of the Mississippi”.

So Dr. Lewis, a New Orleans native with a doctorate in fine arts, began creating alternative institutions, aimed at promoting and preserving the work of black artists like Sam Gilliam, Jacob Lawrence and his mentor, Elizabeth Catlett. Moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, she founded three galleries for artists of color, created the city’s Museum of African American Art, published a historical study of contemporary black art, and wrote one of the first textbooks on the history of African American art.

“Art is not a luxury like many people think,” she said, according to the Black Art in America website. ” It’s a necessity. It documents history – it helps educate people and store knowledge for generations to come.

A tireless champion of African-American art, Dr. Lewis was also an accomplished painter and printmaker in her own right, with works in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York. She was 99 when she died on May 27 at a hospital in Torrance, Calif., after suffering from kidney disease, according to her son Claude.

In a life guided by his dedication to art and social justice, Dr. Lewis taught in Jim Crow-era Florida while working with a Tallahassee branch of the NAACP – rabid members of the Ku Klux Klan , who fired through the windows of his home, according to his Louis Stern Fine Arts gallery.

Her activism continued after moving to upstate New York, where she co-founded a chapter of the NAACP while teaching at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh in the late 1950s. , and after moving to Southern California a few years later. While coordinating education programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, she picketed the museum, according to her son, “because they had almost no African American art – or art from anyone of color”.

To promote African-American artists, Dr. Lewis made short documentaries about sculptors such as Barthé and John Outterbridge. She also teamed up with printmaker Ruth Waddy to interview dozens of artists for the book “Black Artists on Art” (1969), a two-volume survey of the contemporary scene which she published through Contemporary Crafts Gallery, a publishing house and exhibition space she co-founded with actor Bernie Casey.

The book was intended to “promote change”, she writes, “change so that art can function as an expression rather than an institution” – and thus serve whole communities, rather than amuse or enrich a privileged few. His own work featured poignant depictions of African-American life, including scenes of field workers like the man depicted in his 1968 linocut “Field,” who is shown raising his arms to the sun and clasping one hand in a defiant fist.

“The artist is a performer”, Dr. Lewis later wrote, “a voice which makes intelligible the deepest and most significant aspirations of the people” and “a channel through which their resentments, their hopes, their fears, their ambitions and all the other unconscious impulses that condition behavior express themselves and become explicit.

Dr. Lewis reached a wide audience with his 1978 textbook “Art: African American”, which draws on the work of African-American art historian James A. Porter and describes more than two centuries of black American art, beginning with the colonial era. Revised and expanded as “African American Art and Artists”, it became a staple of college courses, assigned to art and African American studies classes for years.

“Thanks to Samella Lewis,” artist and art historian Floyd Coleman wrote in a preface to the 2003 edition of the book, “we gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of the richness and diversity than the African-American art adds to American civilization”.

The daughter of a farmer and a seamstress, Samella Sanders was born in New Orleans on February 27, 1923. (Many sources give her year of birth as 1924, although her son Claude stated that her birth certificate had was given late and had taken a sabbatical at the wrong age.)

In high school, she met an Italian portrait painter, Alfredo Galli, after lingering in the window of his shop in the French Quarter. He spoke no English, she recalled in an oral history interview, but was impressed by her drawing skills and taught her and a classmate for free for two years. “He really worked with us and warned us about the evils of modern art,” she said with a laugh. “But he taught us the technique, and that’s priceless.”

Dr. Lewis went on to study art at Dillard University in New Orleans, where she met Catlett and her then-husband, artist Charles White. When the couple moved to Virginia to take up a teaching position at the Hampton Institute (now a university), Dr. Lewis followed them, continuing his studies under Viktor Lowenfeld, an influential arts educator who taught him “to paint with the heart”. as she later told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

She received a bachelor’s degree in 1945 and later studied fine art at Ohio State University, earning a master’s degree in 1948 and a doctorate in 1951. Two years later, she helped organize the National Conference of Artists, a gathering of black artists and teachers, while chairing the fine arts department at Florida A&M University.

Continuing her interest in East Asian art, Dr. Lewis traveled to Taiwan on a Fulbright scholarship in 1962, then moved to Los Angeles to study Chinese, earning a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Southern California. By 1970, she had joined Scripps College in nearby Claremont, where she became the school’s first tenured African-American professor and taught art history for more than 15 years.

Supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, she founded the Los Angeles Museum of African American Art in 1976. The museum acquired works by Barthé and the painter Palmer Hayden, among other black artists, and is now located in a Macy’s store. at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall, in line with Dr. Lewis’ mission to bring art to the people.

“The average American sees museums the way some people see church—a special occasion, not an everyday affair,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “I think if we’re going to ask people to interested in arts and culture and make it an integral part of their lives, we need to make it available to them.”

Dr. Lewis also founded the journal Black Art: An International Quarterly, now known as the International Review of African American Art, and directed the Clark Humanities Museum at Scripps College. She donated part of her personal art collection to the school, including works by Catlett, Faith Ringgold and Carrie Mae Weems, and in 2007 Scripps launched the Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection in her honor. .

Her husband of more than six decades, Paul Lewis, died in 2013. In addition to her son Claude, survivors include another son, Alan; and three grandchildren.

Dr. Lewis received the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement last year from the College Art Association, a professional visual arts group. She was still working until her health deteriorated about three years ago, her son said, and had long viewed her books, documentaries, gallery exhibitions and artwork as one unified project.

“I can’t stop,” she told the Times-Dispatch in 1997. “It’s all a work of art.”

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