Samella Lewis, a Prominent Historian of Black Art, Passes Away at 99

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Image: Leon Bennett/Getty Images.

Samella Lewis, an author, painter, curator, and historian whose writings highlighted African American art history, has passed away on Friday, the Los Angeles Times reports. 

The Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, which she founded, confirmed her passing along with her younger son, Claude Lewis.

As an acclaimed artist, Lewis believed that art was the great connector of Black life.

“Art is a language like poetry, evoking sensitivities and memories,” she said in an interview in 1995. “Art really helps to speak to the past, present and to a large extent helps to guide you into the future.”

Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, she earned her B.A. degree at Hampton University, then completed her master’s and a doctorate in art history and cultural anthropology at the Ohio State University in 1951, becoming the first Black woman to earn a doctorate degree in the field. While matriculating at Ohio State University, she met mathematician Paul Gad Lewis, whom she married in 1948, They remain married until Paul’s death in 2013.

As she was completing her doctorate, Lewis taught art at Morgan State University. She went on to become the first Chair of the Fine Arts Department at Florida A&M University in 1953. The same year Lewis also became the first African American to convene the National Conference of African American artists held at Florida A&M University. As a professor, she taught at the State University of New York, California State University, Long Beach, and at Scripps College in Claremont, California, where she became the college’s first Black tenured professor.

According to Art News, two of Lewis’s books, Black Artists on Art (1969) and Art: African American (1978), are among the first historical surveys of Black art in the field. Black Artists on Art was published by her own publishing house Contemporary Crafts which she launched because editors said there was no audience for her work.

In the early 1970s, Lewis ran the L.A. art spaces Multi-Cul and the Gallery, which were important spaces for emerging Black artists in Los Angeles and one of the sites of the Black Arts Movement. One of her greatest achievements happened in 1976 when she founded the Museum of African American Art as a community-minded art space.

In 2007, Scripps college’s Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery established the Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection in her honor which features her work and those of other renowned artists.

Last year, the College Art Association, where she once served on the publication’s committee, honored her with the lifetime achievement award.

Lewis dedicated her life to preserving the art of African Americans and of the Black diaspora.

“Looking back, I’m not proud of anything I did, really,” Lewis wrote in the catalogue for the 2017 show Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. “I don’t get proud. I just do what I have to do, and it happens, and then I go to the next thing. Compiling those books about Black artists and writing the art history of African American art wasn’t done for career objectives—it was a necessity.”

Lewis is survived by her son Claude; her older son, Alan Lewis, a retired schoolteacher; and three grandchildren: Unity Lewis, Gabriella Angela Lewis and Gian Carlo Lewis.

We extend our prayers and deepest condolences to the family and friends of Samella Lewis.

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