Art historian, artist, and curator Samella Lewis, who played a vital role in shepherding the work of Black artists into the canon of American art, died of renal failure May 27 in Torrance, California, at the age of ninety-nine. Lewis, the author of the pathbreaking volumes Black Artists on Art (1969) and Art: African American (1978), was additionally the founder of the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles and a cofounder of the journal Black Art: An International Quarterly. She was also a professor at Scripps College, where she taught for nearly fifteen years. Through these endeavors, she ineluctably shaped global and local perceptions of African American art history, opening up pathways and illuminating perspectives that continue to offer fresh insight.
Samella Sanders was born in New Orleans on February 27, 1923. Her mother was a domestic worker and a seamstress, and her father was a sharecropper and a Methodist minister. Interested in drawing from a very young age, she found inspiration in the city’s French Quarter, where she took lessons from an Italian portrait painter. In 1940, she enrolled in Dillard University, a historically Black college, where she studied under Elizabeth Catlett, whom she followed to the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia, obtaining her BA there in 1945. She subsequently moved north, earning her master’s degree and a double doctorate in fine arts and art history from Ohio State University. While attending the school, she met mathematician Paul Gad Lewis, whom she married in 1948.
Following several teaching jobs at various universities and a few years spent teaching at Taiwan’s Tunghai University on a Fulbright Scholarship, Lewis arrived in Los Angeles, where she taught at several different colleges while studying Chinese. In 1970, she became the first Black person to be named a tenured professor at Scripps College in Claremont, California, where she would remain through 1984. Lewis is credited with tremendously expanding the horizons of that institution’s art department, teaching courses on African and Chinese art, and bringing figures such as Maya Angelou and Jacob Lawrence to the university’s Clark Humanities, Museums, of which she was curator.
Concurrent with her professorial life, Lewis founded her own publishing house, Contemporary Crafts, after encountering a lack of interest by white-owned publishers in texts focused on Black artists. She authored a number of books, including the aforementioned Black Artists on Art, for which she interviewed 150 African American artists about their practices, and Art: African American (revised and republished in 2003 as African American Art and Artists), which traced African American craft traditions dating from the 1600s to the late 1970s and remains crucial reading today. In 1975, with Jan Jemison and Val Spaulding, she cofounded Black Art: An International Quarterly; the publication continues as International Review of African American Art. “I felt that something had to be done to document what African American artists were doing,” she told filmmaker Eric Minh Swenson in 2016. “Not just for the artists but for the population. I felt that people could afford to buy this, where some of them couldn’t afford to buy the books.”
Lewis’s curatorial activities continued apace outside of her work at Scripps. Disillusioned with a lack of racially inclusive values at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, at which she served as curator for a two-year stint beginning in 1968, she went on to run art spaces Multi-Cul, with Bernie Casey, and the Gallery, both of which were instrumental in raising the profiles of Black artists working on the West Coast at that time. In 1976, she founded the Museum of African American Art, which is still extant today.
In addition to her work in the curatorial, professorial, and authorial fields, Lewis was an artist in her own right, and was well known for her paintings and prints centering Black figures in the modern movement for civil rights while grounding them in an American history of enslavement. Her work is held in the collection of the Ruth Chandler Williams Gallery at Scripps College; the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among other institutions. In 2021, she received the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement from the College Art Association.
For the duration of her career, Lewis remained a fierce advocate for access to the arts for all. “Art is not a luxury as many people think,” she said. “It is a necessity. It documents history—it helps educate people and stores knowledge for generations to come.”