When you spend considerable time at your average arts school, the overwhelming whiteness of the work you study is simply a fact of life. I remember taking quarter-long courses where my classmates and I read dozens and dozens of pieces, two or three of which were by non-white authors (many friends in other art disciplines had the same problem.) I'm not saying this to discredit my teachers, who are some of the most active allies I've ever met, or even art teachers in general. I'm saying this to draw attention to the larger problem: oftentimes, artistic work created by people of color isn't given the same attention and consideration as the work of their white counterparts.
One issue that complicates the problem of representation of black art—specifically black Southern art—is the limited arena for southern art in any context. In my experience, it’s been hard enough to find positive and honest depictions of white Southerners, the large majority of which are neither seersucker-clad descendants of aristocratic plantation owners nor modern-day Dukes of Hazzard complete with camo-print Otterboxes (although these are stocked in every RadioShack and Verizon I’ve been to.) If white Southerners weren’t fighting their own (very valid) battles to reclaim their own representation, I’m sure many of the liberal ones would try to ensure that black and brown voices from their states were being showcased, as well. Sadly, as black grits, we don’t exist in a world where the people around us are free from marginalization and eager to help rid us of our own. The trick of black Southern women and girls, then, is to make space for themselves where none exists—to forge themselves into pre-existing literary and artistic traditions, and attempt to begin their own.
Born in New Orleans in 1924, Samella Lewis has a long history out of breaking into spaces where she wasn't initially welcomed. She was an esteemed student of Dillard University in New Orleans, where she was mentored by the famed African-American sculptor, Elizabeth Catlett. After recognizing Lewis’ incredible potential and the relatively limited opportunities Dillard could offer, Catlett encouraged her to transfer to Hampton University’s art program, and finish her undergraduate work there. Lewis heeded this advice, and graduated from Hampton in 1945 with a B.A. in art history. Lewis furthered her studies at the Ohio State University, earning a master’s degree and doctorate in both fine arts and art history. By this time (1951), she’d already altered history by becoming the first African-American woman to earn these specific Ph.Ds. After school, she gained further notice for her prints and portraits, which often depicted the communities of black Southerners she’d encountered in her childhood as well as those she’d met after moving to southern California. Today, her work has been displayed in the Louis Stern Gallery in her longtime home of L.A., the Stella Jones Gallery in her native New Orleans, the Zora Neale Hurston Museum in Eatonville, and many more galleries both nationally and internationally.
While all of her personal achievements would be enough cause for celebration, Mrs. Lewis is primarily celebrated for her efforts to preserve and expose black art. She wrote and published several much-needed books on this subject, including a collection of art theory from various black artists (Black Artists on Art), a study of her beloved professor (The Art of Elizabeth Catlett), a children’s book created to heighten awareness for those outside of the academy (African American Art for Young People), and a textbook still used in modern studies of the field (African American art and artists.)
As if these contributions to the literary and academic community weren’t enough, Mrs. Lewis is also a founder and former curator of The Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, one of the first museums to take up the task of responsibly and wholeheartedly engaging with and showcasing black art. She also collaborated with friends to open the Gallery at Scripps College, a project that allowed L.A. County residents to receive prints of high-quality artwork at affordable prices, yet again ensuring that traditional art became more accessible to black people. Through her successful labor in black art history and curating, Lewis transcended the mere role of an artist and began to provide possibilities for hundreds of others like her.
The work of Mrs. Lewis is directly in line with the characteristics of black Southern womanhood I most admire. In most cases, mere exceptionalism has never been the final accomplishment of women predisposed to putting others before themselves—in many ways, we don’t feel accomplished unless we’ve made room for others and ourselves. Samella Lewis is a prime example of how it is not enough to make space for yourself, because that space can easily be usurped or forgotten after you’ve stopped creating. When you provide arenas for others to be noticed and appreciated, however, it makes it impossible for your work and/or activism to end with yourself. The goal of ensuring the continuation of black art is something we take seriously here at 2BG, and we hope that by following the lead of artists like art-influencers like Samella Lewis, we too can uplift more than just ourselves.