Dr. Samella Lewis: The Godmother of African American Art
By Shantay Robinson
We need to be made aware of Dr. Samella Lewis’ accomplishments as an institution builder for a better understanding of how to create generational progress in our communities. If you are at all interested in African American art, you need to know who she is. Although she is an artist in her own right, she sacrificed her career as an artist to educate other people about African American art. At 96 years-old, she still creates artworks, but her more prominent role for much of her life has been that of an institution builder. She has started galleries and a museum, wrote books and established an art magazine.
Dr. Lewis has seen this world change drastically, and she has played a pivotal role in its progress. While African Americans in contemporary times have a tremendous voice, in that we can let the world know where we stand on issues, Dr. Lewis, came of age in the Jim Crow South, a time when speaking up could result in dire situations. But she made her voice heard despite potential negative consequences. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana on February 27, 1923, Lewis came of age in the era of Jim Crow, a system she would later be reprimanded for fighting to abolish. In an interview with Baila EMS Films, she claims to have been run out of many places including Florida by its Governor due to her fight for desegregation.
“Art is not a luxury as many people think – it is a necessity. It documents history – it helps educate people and stores knowledge for generations to come.” – Dr. Samella Lewis
Society was not just or fair, but she defied the odds and became the first African American to receive doctorates in Fine Art and Art History. Dr. Lewis attended Dillard University, Hampton Institute, and Ohio State University. She taught as a full-time professor at Morgan State University, Florida A&M, State University New York Plattsburgh, California State Dominguez, California State Long Beach, and Scripps College. She founded International Review of African American Art and the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles. She has written several books about black art and artists. And she did all of this while being a wife and mother.
Although Lewis is an accomplished scholar, she was an artist first. As a young person, Lewis spent time in the French Quarter looking at art. During an outing with a friend, she came across a black woman whose lover was an Italian portrait painter. Lewis was able to take private lessons with him free of charge for two years. Later she would enroll at Dillard University in New Orleans where a young Elizabeth Catlett served as her professor. Lewis was impacted by the relationship she shared with Catlett, as it let her imagination run wild. Catlett wasn’t as demure as Lewis was taught to be. Catlett was bold, and that frightened Lewis. An instructor at Dillard suggested Lewis switch schools. And Catlett was able to obtain scholarships from University of Iowa and Hampton Institute for Lewis who was careful to choose Hampton for the support she might gain from an HBCU. She then went on to Ohio State to obtain her master’s and doctorate.
Dr. Lewis began working at a time before both the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Rights Movement. Being a working mother was not new to black women at the time Dr. Lewis began her career. But she was able to accomplish so much professionally while raising two sons. While white women protested for equal opportunity to that of men under the law and to gain the right to upper-level work, black women never really had the choice as to whether they would stay at home to be full-time mothers or find work to support their families. Black women were forced to work as slaves performing work equal to men and later as sharecroppers in fields after emancipation to provide for their families. Their situations after slavery were not unlike that of enslavement. Post emancipation the majority of working black women found opportunities as domestic help in private homes. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Rights Movement black women had few choices for employment in order to care for their families. But Dr. Lewis did the unthinkable. She became a Doctor of Philosophy, an accomplishment that is still quite impressive for anyone of any race.
Raising a family while teaching and starting businesses is a challenging task for anyone, but Dr. Lewis made it work. With her husband and two sons, Dr. Lewis was able to accomplish so much through perseverance and determination. Her son Claude recalls, “A lot of times when she worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I was taking classes over there as a kid. So, wherever she was working it was kind of a family involvement…I think it was conscious. If [she has] to work how can [she] still be around [her] family? It was either conscious or that’s just how they moved. When you move in certain ways, your life plays out the way it should.” Claude remembers times when his family would prepare to ship the magazine, Black Art: An International Quarterly to subscribers. He also recalls working at the galleries they opened. His involvement in his family business seen by outsiders looks glamorous, but to him that’s just what life was like. He recalls:
“I knew what she was doing. I might not have known how important it was till maybe I got a little older like high school or something. I met all these great people and famous artists. But it was like regular life to me. They were just regular people. And all of them came through. And I think that’s why I make music and I do some photography and my son went to art school. I think that creativeness and just that freedom of expression stuck with me because that’s all the people that came around. They were all each individual fantastic people, but I just thought that it must be like that for everybody. I think when she did the magazine, I was older and when I was in high school they opened their first gallery. It was like, okay wow, we actually have a business. Before that I was just part of it I didn’t really think that much about it. I didn’t think it was anything special at the time. And they inspired a lot of people.”
While Dr. Lewis has accomplished a lot during her working years, the work she put in, is still making an impact on the African American art world. The publication she created, Black Art: An International Quarterly, which she personally financed in its first two years of existence was established in 1976, and was transferred to the care of Hampton University in 1992. The title of the publication was renamed, International Review of African American Art, and it still focuses on the artwork of African American artists. While some of her books are out of print, others such as African American Art and Artists, Samella Lewis and the African American Experience, and Art: African America are still available for sale. Although she opened three art galleries, which are no longer open, one of her major contributions to the African American artworld is the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles. The museum was founded in 1976 by Dr. Lewis and other scholars to increase public awareness of African American art. It is located on the third floor of the Macy’s department store at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall.
Dr. Lewis thought it was necessary to start somewhere people could exhibit their work and start something that would document what African American artist were doing. She told Baila EMS Films, “I thought it was necessary to at least start something so that people would have a place to exhibit their works and to house their works.” While at the time she was writing books, she started a magazine because they are essentially more affordable than books. Eugene Foney, longtime friend of Dr. Lewis met her in the 1990s at John Biggers’ home whom she attended Hampton Institute with. He says her dedication to the culture is most striking, as she created materials about African American artists at a time when there weren’t a lot of materials that showcased these artists. Although Foney describes Dr. Lewis as lighthearted, warm and caring, it is obvious that when it comes to taking care of business, she definitely gets the job done.
While she never stopped creating art, at 96 years-old, she is more focused on her art these days. Dr. Lewis doesn’t sketch. She employs an intuitive practice where the marks she makes on the canvas tell her where the artwork is going. She doesn’t paint portraits. Her figures are shaped by her imagination. Dr. Lewis’s work was featured in the 2011 Hammer Museum exhibition, Now Dig This: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980. And in 2016, Dr. Lewis had a show at Stella Jones Gallery in her hometown New Orleans, Louisiana.
According to her son, Claude, Dr. Lewis’ birthday has been misreported because when she was born, society didn’t provide birth certificates to African American people. Dr. Lewis was actually born in 1923. There’s something so amazing about the fortitude of freedom fighters like Dr. Samella Lewis. Although she came of age at a time when under the law African Americans didn’t have equal rights, she fought for what she believed in and made no apology about it. While she was taught to be demure for her personal safety in the time of Jim Crow, she, like so many others, knew she had to be strong. Because of her we can understand how progress is made. It is made through a continual struggle for change and the building of community that can be passed down through generations of people.
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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