Samella Lewis was born Samella Sanders February 27th, 1924 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She studied with sculptor Elizabeth Catlett at Dillard University in New Orleans before finishing her Bachelor’s of Science in Art degree at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. After completing her undergraduate career, Lewis became the first African-American woman to achieve a doctorate in art history and fine art from the Ohio State University in 1951.
Much of Lewis’ career was centered on furthering and promoting African-American involvement in the arts. In 1975 she co-founded Black Art: An International Quarterly, later renamed International Review of African-American Art, and helped establish the Museum of African-American Art in Los Angeles, California. She remained senior curator of the museum until 1986. Much of her early work, which was mainly prints on paper, explored themes of violence and oppression, which afflicted African-Americans.
Along with her husband, Paul Gad Lewis, Samella Lewis became an active participant of the Civil Rights Movement. She continued to work to further the movement through her art while serving as the head of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. After the Ku Klux Klan home targeted her family, Lewis moved to New York to teach art history at State University of New York, where she worked to establish a local NAACP chapter.
Much of Lewis’ work is genre paintings and portraits created using watercolors, charcoal, and wax crayon. Later in her career, Lewis began to explore digital means for her artwork.
Lewis studied and taught art history for much of her career. As such, Lewis has a keen eye for using her art as a means for social change and commentary. One of her early pieces, Migrants, seems especially relevant in today’s political climate. It features various figures, which seem to be of different facets of African-American culture, all-sitting together in a dark field. The contrasting colors and use of value and line work to create such an expressive image really draws the viewer in, and the accompanying social commentary is very reflective of Lewis’ engagement in the Civil Right’s Movement.
Gertrude (2004) is an example of one of the works by Lewis that caught my eye. The drawing pictures an African-American girl, holding a flower. Her work truly celebrates African-American culture, celebrating dark skin complexion and capturing the beauty of the people. In particular, I was drawn to this piece because of the dark-skinned model, which stands in direct contrast to the typical light-skinned beauty standard celebrated throughout the United States. Further, her use of value to create shading and texture, especially in the hair, was particularly interesting to me. There was something relatable about this image.
Twentieth Century Wisemen (1968)
Another poignant example of Lewis’ mastery of line work and value, Twentieth Century Wiseman captures a slightly darker side of African-American culture: superstition. Of particular interest for me in this picture is the geometric shapes employed to create the figures and the faces. It presents as a different take on the African-American figure, highlighting stereotyped African-American features without creating a caricature of the individual.
- "LEWIS, Samella." Benezit Dictionary of Artists. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 21, 2017, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/benezit/B00204832.
- Otfinoski, Steven. 2011. African Americans in the Visual Arts. New York: Facts on File, Inc, 2011. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed February 22, 2017).
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