Samella Lewis

Born 1921, New Orleans, Louisiana
Lives and works in Los Angeles, California

Photograph of Samella Lewis from announcement for Samella Lewis and George Clack exhibition at Brockman Gallery, Los Angeles, 1969
Photograph of Samella Lewis from announcement for Samella Lewis and George Clack exhibition at Brockman Gallery, Los Angeles, 1969  

Dr. Samella S. Lewis is a visual artist and pioneer in the field of art history. Among her many accomplishments are the creation of numerous gallery spaces and later a museum for African American artists, the publication of a series of scholarly books and journals on black art, and the production of a substantial body of artwork that has garnered international acclaim.

Lewis grew up in New Orleans in the 1920s and turned to art as a way to cope with life's harsh realities and with her own unique nature. As a young artist, she was drawn to subjects as diverse as police brutality against African Americans, comic books, and charac­ters from her older sister's romance novels. She began her academic studies at Dillard University in New Orleans, where she met her eventual mentors Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White. After two years, she transferred to Hampton Institute (now Hampton Univer­sity) in Virginia, completing her degree in 1945. She went on to earn master's and doctorate degrees in art history from Ohio State Univer­sity. In 1950, while writing her dissertation, she began teaching as an associate professor at Morgan College (now Morgan State University) in Baltimore. Lewis spent five years as the chair of the fine arts department at Florida A&M University, where she organized the first professional conference for African American artists—the National Conference of Artists—in 1953. She moved to State University of New York, Plattsburg, in 1958, where she developed an interest in Chinese and Asian art, language, and culture. She traveled to Taiwan on a Fulbright fellowship, and upon her return she became a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

As an artist, Lewis is best known for her figurative works on paper, including many series of lithographs and screen prints that are pictorial manifestations of the age of civil rights and black liberation. A raised Black Power fist is the focal point of her 1968 linocut Field. Lewis's boldly incised markings circum­scribe a ponderously sculptural field worker who gestures in agony and rebellion under the burning heat of the sun. The matte blackness of the sky is adroitly offset by sweeping lines of varying thickness, bearing witness to the artist's dexterity with the medium. Lewis also produced paintings and sculptures throughout her career.

Lewis became a significant force in the art scene in Los Angeles over the next two decades, and her influence spread to the rest of the country. In 1969 she became education coordinator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, an opportunity she pursued because she wanted to create new exhibition opportunities for African American artists. She fought vigorously for the hiring of more African Americans by the museum, but after more than a year of constant conflict and disappoint­ment, she resigned. Before she left, however, she and some other constituents started a group called Concerned Citizens for Black Art. They set up guidelines and made recommen­dations to the museum as to what they thought would be more appropriate educa­tional programming. Lewis established three galleries in the Los Angeles area, and in 1976 founded the city's Museum of African American Art, where she served as senior curator until 1986.

"Black Artists on Art," 2 vols. (1969, 1971), by Samella Lewis and Ruth Waddy
Black Artists on Art, 2 vols. (1969, 1971), by Samella Lewis and Ruth Waddy

In 1970 Lewis was appointed professor of art history and humanities at Scripps College in Claremont, where she became the first tenured African American faculty member. She also directed and curated exhibitions for the college's Clark Humanities Museum. As a scholar, Lewis was highly influential in estab­lishing black art as an art historical genre. In the 1960s and 1970s she made several short films highlighting the careers of African Ameri­can artists such as John Outterbridge, Bernie Casey, and Richmond Barthé. In 1969 and 1971 she coedited and copublished (with Ruth Waddy) the two volumes of Black Artists on Art, a guide to contemporary African American art­ists comprising artist statements and images. In order to publish this collection, Lewis and artist and actor Bernie Casey founded Contemporary Crafts Gallery, the first African American–owned art book publishing house. Contempo­rary Crafts also incorporated an exhibition space for artists of color and facilitated the production of affordable prints. In 1976 Lewis cofounded Black Art: An International Quarterly, which later became the International Review of African American Art, and in 1978 she published the seminal textbook Art: African American.

Lewis taught at Scripps until 1984 and has since continued to write, curate, and make art. She was granted the Charles White Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 and the UNICEF Award for the Visual Arts in 1995. In 2002 Scripps established the Samella Lewis Scholarship for African American students based on scholastic achievement, excellence in character, leadership, and responsibility. Five years later the college launched the Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection in her honor and with her assistance. The collec­tion focuses on contemporary artists, with a special emphasis on works by women and African Americans.

—Naima J. Keith

Selected Exhibitions

Samella Lewis and George Clack, Brockman Gallery, Los Angeles, 1969.

Solo exhibition, University Union Gallery, California Polytechnic State University, Pomona, 1980.

Solo exhibition, Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, United States and Canada, 1980–83.

Solo exhibition, Pasadena City College, 1981.

Solo exhibition, University of California, San Diego, 1981.

African American Art in Atlanta, Public and Corporate Collections, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 1984.

Solo exhibition, Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles, 1984. 

Selected Bibliography

Begley, Mary. "Artist Keys Work to Black Experience." Los Angeles Times, February 8, 1970.

Lewis, Samella, interview by Karen Anne Mason, March 1992. African American Artists of Los Angeles, Oral History Program, University of California, Los Angeles. Transcript, Charles E. Young Research Library, Department of Special Collections, UCLA.

Lewis, Samella S., Alitash Kebede, and Amando Solis. Samella Lewis: More than Sixty Years of Collecting. Hampton, Va.: Hampton University Museum, 2006.

"Lewis-Clack Exhibit Art at Brockman." Los Angeles Sentinel, May 15, 1969.

Wilson, William. "New Volumes Mirror a Feeling of Uneasiness." Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1969.

Selected Links

Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection page, Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College, Claremont, California. 

Samella S. Lewis papers, 1930–2010 finding aid, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University, Atlanta.

Samella Lewis Wikipedia page.

KCET, "Local Hero: Dr. Samella Lewis" video.

Richard Candida Smith, "Image and Belief: Samella Lewis" oral history interview, 1999, Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities.

"Samella Lewis," oral history on The HistoryMakers, August 24, 2003, and May 22, 2004.

"Samella Lewis on Elizabeth Catlett," uploaded to Vimeo by the Museum of the African Diaspora, January 15, 2015. 

"Black Artists on Art: The Legacy Exhibit," Oakstop, February 2, 2015. 

Chicago Manual of Style
citation for this page
Keith, Naima J. "Samella Lewis." Now Dig This! Art in Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980 Digital Archive. Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2016. https://hammer.ucla.edu/now-dig-this/artists/samella-lewis.