Samella Lewis, a black artist and art historian who did more than decry the racial blinders of the white art institution, including establishing a museum dedicated to promoting black art, died May 27 in Torrance, California, in near Los Angeles. She was 99.
Her son Claude Lewis said the cause was kidney failure.
Keasha Dumas Heath, executive director of the Museum of African American Art, the institution that Dr. Lewis in Los Angeles in 1976 noted her wide-ranging impact, calling her in an email “a leading voice in black art science, and a promoter of new avenues for black artists.”
“She saw opportunities that didn’t exist for black artists,” she added, “and then she created them.”
In a remarkably diverse career, Dr. Lewis also co-founded an art magazine, helped run galleries, made films about black artists, taught at universities, and wrote renowned books, most notably “Art: African American,” first published in 1978. That book (later republished as “African American Art and Artists”) remains influential, said Kellie Jones, a noted art historian at Columbia University, which, she said, characterizes Dr. Lewis’s various endeavors: They have endured.
“She’s starting a magazine: still in print,” she said in a telephone interview. “The museum: is still there.”
“She did it all,” added Dr. Jones to it. “She really did it all.”
Samella Sanders was born on February 27, 1923 in New Orleans to Samuel and Rachel Sanders. (Two oral histories give her birth year as 1924, but her son said she came to believe 1923 was correct.) Her father was a farmer and her mother was a housekeeper.
She grew up in Ponchatoula, La., northwest of New Orleans, and started drawing at a young age. In an oral history recorded in 1992 by the Center for Oral History Research at the University of California, Los Angeles, she said her first sale of a piece of art was to her kindergarten teacher, who was impressed with the way she got an assignment treated to make a drawing. pig.
“All the other kids were making brown pigs, white pigs, so I drew a purple one,” she said. “And I was determined that by doing that pig, I wouldn’t stay within anyone’s boundaries. I just drew lines, but then I went outside. It was as if the pig was shaking.”
She enrolled at Dillard University in New Orleans with the intention of studying history, she said, but at the urging of her high school art teacher, she enrolled in a freshman art school. Her professor was the artist Elizabeth Catlett, who became a major influence artistically and in terms of activism. For example, if they were going to get on the bus together, Ms. Catlett would do things like the “For Colored Customers Only” sign demarcating the black seats and throw it out the window—a revealing move for a young college student who was simply explaining the racial situation in Louisiana. as things are.
“There I am, raised in these circumstances, and here comes this woman and disrupts the whole situation,” said Dr. Lewis in oral history.
Mrs. Catlett also changed her approach to art.
“One of the most important things I learned in Elizabeth’s class is that you don’t paint people without knowing something about them and who they are and where they are,” she said. “I was painting these portraits and she would say, ‘Who is this?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Well, what are you painting it for?’”
After two years, she transferred to the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia, where she received a bachelor’s degree in art history in 1945.
She graduated from Ohio State University, first printmaking and then sculpture, although she encountered some resistance in that genre.
“I ran into problems not only of racism, but also of sexism,” she said, “where my professors thought women shouldn’t weld” because of the heavy equipment involved. So she focused on painting and broadening her art history studies, developing particular expertise in Asian and pre-Columbian art. She received a master’s degree there in 1948 — the year she married Paul G. Lewis, a mathematician — and in 1951 she became the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in fine arts and art history at the university. A post on a university website once called her “the godmother of African American art.”
In 1953 Dr. Lewis appointed as head of the art department at Florida A&M University, which needed reinforcements. According to Steven Otfinoski’s book “African Americans in the Visual Arts” (2003), she once told the university president that she would paint his portrait in exchange for more money for her department.
The Lewises became active in civil rights issues, and harassment from the Ku Klux Klan and others led them to leave Florida in 1958, when Dr. Lewis took a teaching position at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. In 1966 she took an appointment at California State University in Long Beach. That same year, she made the first of a number of short documentaries, “The Black Artists,” an overview of African-American art.
Although she was vocal about the dark arts and artists, Dr. Lewis that, especially in her teaching, she tried to use her expertise in Asian art and other fields to make connections.
“I’ve never taught courses where I locked the door, ‘This is African art and this is Caribbean art,'” she said in the oral history. “I tried to show connections.”
But as the 1960s got brighter, so did the white domination of the art world. In late 1968, she left academia to become a teaching coordinator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, hoping to elevate black art there.
“Anyone can have a quick Black show,” she told The Los Angeles Times at the time, but she was looking for more substantive change. She lasted a little over a year before quitting, so frustrated with the lack of progress that she chose her own museum.
“We’ve been through different periods – slavery, emancipation, underpaid and overworked, pacification, integration, trying to prove something instead of staying in our own household,” she told The Progress-Bulletin of Pomona, California in early 1972. “I’ve had enough of this proof of myself.”
In 1969 she published ‘Black Artists on Art’ with Ruth Waddy, establishing her own publishing house Contemporary Crafts. In it, black artists spoke, sometimes fiercely, about their work and the obstacles they encountered. The book (which was followed by a second volume in 1971) shocked the art establishment and the people who booked it, including William Wilson, art critic for The Los Angeles Times.
“Artists’ statements range from humble affirmations of a desire to make art of value, to downright militant rejections ‘from the intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals who dominate the art scene’ and from white culture in general,” wrote Mr. Wilson in a review, in which he seemed to find the book’s challenge distasteful.
dr. Lewis was also looking for ways to get around the white establishment. She had already helped found the National Conference of Artists, a professional organization for black artists, which continues today. And after she left the Los Angeles Museum, she co-founded the Multi-Cul Gallery in Los Angeles, which focused on black art and selling works at prices nearly anyone could afford.
In 1975 she and two others founded Black Art: An International Quarterly, which today continues under the name International Review of African American Art. Then, in 1976, came her Museum of African American Art, which has since hosted exhibitions and directs educational programs.
dr. Lewis resumed teaching in 1969 at Scripps College in Claremont, California, where she remained for 15 years and now houses the Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection. Over the years she curated numerous exhibitions in galleries and museums.
And during her busy life, she found time to create her own art. Her paintings and prints have been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions across the country.
Her husband died in 2013. In addition to her son Claude, she leaves behind a son, Alan, and three grandchildren.
Speaking in Columbus, Ohio, in 2000, Dr. Lewis a simple explanation of why people should respect artists of all races and backgrounds and try to hear what they say.
“They can tell us what will happen in the future,” she said. “They can tell us what we should have seen in the past.”