Samella Lewis

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Samella Lewis
Samella C. Sanders

(1924-02-27) February 27, 1924 (age 95)
Alma materHampton University
Ohio State University
Florida A&M
Art Historian
Years active1960s-present
Known forFirst African American to earn a PHD in fine art and art history

Samella Sanders Lewis (born February 27, 1924) is an African-American artist, working primarily as a printmaker and painter. She is also a published author, art historian and a former educator.

Early life and background[edit]

Lewis was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. Widely exhibited and collected as an artist herself, Lewis is better known as a historian, critic and collector of art, especially African-American art. Lewis has completed four degrees, five films, seven books and a substantial body of artworks which have received critical respect. She pursued an art degree starting off at Dillard University in 1941, but left Dillard for Hampton Institute in Virginia, earning her master's degree in 1947. She earned her B.A. degree at Hampton University, then completed her master and doctorate in art history and cultural anthropology at the Ohio State University in 1951.[1] Lewis is the first female African American to earn a doctorate in fine art and art history.[2]

While finishing her doctorate, Lewis taught art at Morgan State University.[3] Lewis became the first Chair of the Fine Arts Department at Florida A&M University in 1953;[4] that same year Lewis also became the first African American to convene the National conference of African American artists held at Florida A&M University.[5] She was a professor at the State University of New York, California State University, Long Beach, and at Scripps College in Claremont, California. She co-founded, with Bernie Casey, the Contemporary Crafts Gallery in Los Angeles in 1970.[1] In 1973, she served on the selection committee for the exhibition BLACKS: USA: 1973 held at the New York Cultural Center.[6]

Lewis's grandson is Bay Area artist and musician Unity Lewis.[2][7] He plans to create a contemporary version of Samella Lewis's catalog Black Artists on Art, which featured black artists not typically showcased in mainstream art galleries and sold thousands of copies.[7] "I wanted to make a chronology of African American artists, and artists of African descent, to document our history. The historians weren't doing it. I felt it better the artists do it anyway, through pictorial and written information… It was really about the movement," Samella Lewis said of the book published in 1969 and 1971.[8]

In 1960-70s, Samella Lewis belonged to a group of artists that would meet every month.[5]

Lewis has been collecting art since the year 1942. She mostly collects art from WPA and the Harlem Renaissance.[5]


In the 1960s–1970s her work, which includes lithographs, linocuts, and serigraphs, reflected humanity and freedom. Between 1969-70, Lewis and E.J. Montgomery were consultants for a "ground breaking" exhibition creating awareness to the history of African American history and art.[5]

Lewis is the founder of the International Review of African American Art in 1975. In 1976, she founded the Museum of African-American Art[9] with a group of artistic, academic, business and community leaders in Los Angeles, California.[1] These founders had similar goals including increasing the public's awareness of African American art. Many individual and corporations, such as Macy's, made generous donations to the museum. Samella Lewis, as the staff's senior curator in the museum, not only organized great numbers of exhibitions but also developed diverse ways of educating the public on African American arts. In an article, she discussed the ideas of "art of tradition", and argued that museums had the responsibility to explore the African roots of African American art.[10] The museum continues to operate on these donations to this day. Additionally, the museum's staff and volunteers are dedicated to supporting the museum. Lewis once mentioned an "art of inspiration" based on the experiences of African Americans themselves.[11] Lewis founded three other museums in the Los Angeles, California. She also has a museum west of Mississippi.[5]

She is an NAACP member, and a collector of art with her collection including African, Chinese, Asian, South American and other art. Some of the art that Lewis has collected was transferred to the Hampton Institute, now the University Museum.[5]

In 1984, she produced a monograph on the artist Elizabeth Catlett,[5] who had been one of Lewis's mentors at Dillard University.[12]

In 2015, Unity Lewis and art entrepreneur Trevor Parham created The Legacy Exhibit, which featured three generations of black fine artists, including contemporary artists as well as some included in the original "Black Artists on Art." The show launched their recruitment efforts for 500 black American artists to participate in the updated volumes.[7]


  • 1969: Samella Lewis and Geroge Clack, Brockman Gallery, Los Angeles
  • 1980: Solo Exhibition, University Union Gallery, California Polytechnic State University, Pomona, California
  • 1980: Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, United States and Canada
  • 1981: Solo exhibition, Pasadena City College, Pasadena, California
  • 1981: Solo exhibition, University of California, San Diego
  • 1984: African American Art in Atlanta, Public and Corporate Collections, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia
  • 1984: Solo exhibition, Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles, California
  • 2011: Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, California[13]

Awards and recognition[edit]

  • 1962: Fulbright Fellowship to study Asian culture at First Institute of Chinese Civilization and Tung Mai University, Taiwan
  • 1964-65: National Defense Education Act postdoctoral fellow at University of Southern California, studying Chinese language and Asian civilization
  • 1995: UNICEF Award for the Visual Arts
  • 1996-97: Named a Distinguished Scholar by the Getty Center for the History of Art and Humanities
  • 1993: Charles White lifetime Achievement Award
  • 2003: The History Maker Award
  • 2004: Special Day Recognition Award for Outstanding Contributions from the City of New Orleans
  • 2005: Alumni Association Award from the Ohio State University


  1. ^ a b c Farrington, Lisa (2005). Creating their own image: the history of African-American women artists. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199767601.
  2. ^ a b "Bay area artist hopes to establish himself at Kaneko Gallery". The American River Current. Retrieved 2017-02-06.
  3. ^ Lewis, Samella S. interviewee; Cándida Smith, Richard; Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, compiler; J. Paul Getty Trust, publisher (1999). Image and belief : Samella Lewis. Getty Research Institute.
  4. ^ "Fine Arts Program - Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University 2018". Retrieved 2018-10-23.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Harris, Juliette. "The international review of African American art". "Samella Lewis: an art institution in her own right". 18: 14–15.
  6. ^ "BLACKS: USA: 1973 Opens at the Cultural Center". Chicago Metro News. 29 September 1973.
  7. ^ a b c "Drummond: Oakland exhibit celebrates black fine art – The Mercury News". Retrieved 2017-02-06.
  8. ^ "Black Artists on Art: The Legacy Exhibit | OAKSTOP". Retrieved 2017-02-06.
  9. ^ "THE MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN ART". Retrieved 2018-10-23.
  10. ^ "Lewis, Samella 1924– - Dictionary definition of Lewis, Samella 1924– | FREE online dictionary". Retrieved 2017-02-06.
  11. ^ "The Museum of African American Art | Los Angeles". Retrieved 2017-02-06.
  12. ^ "Samella Lewis | Now Dig This! digital archive | Hammer Museum". Hammer Museum. Retrieved 2018-10-23.
  13. ^ "Now Dig This!". Hammer Museum. Retrieved 3 March 2018.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]