Collecting and the Cultural Politics of Race and Community Survival: Samella Sanders Lewis

By Olin, Ferris | Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview

Collecting and the Cultural Politics of Race and Community Survival: Samella Sanders Lewis


Olin, Ferris, Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art


We are a people. A people do not throw their geniuses away. And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children and if necessary, bone by bone. (1)

Los Angeles-based Samella Sanders Lewis (b.1924) has had an unusually long and productive career as an artist and art historian, academic and scholar, activist and entrepreneur, and art collector and publisher. Her participation in each of these arenas has been nourishing both to herself and her community, and is illustrative of African American women's resistance and agency. (2) Through her efforts, often exercised as collaborative initiatives, the (silenced) voices of many members of the art community are being affirmed. Her cultural practices are instruments of change and transformation.

Indeed, Lewis is, metaphorically speaking, a "loud black girl" (3) as she proclaims the existence of art and artist of the African Diaspora; provides forums for their recognition and survival, using economic, social, and cultural resources on their behalf; and counters prevailing modes of recognition accorded by the mainstream art world. Lewis' work has been made all the more difficult because her identity as an African American, woman, and artist locates her within interlocking systems of discrimination based on race, gender, and profession. (4) Lewis' life work and collection set new paradigms for understanding art history, art production, and art patronage.

Lewis was born in Louisiana to a self-employed sharecropper, lodgekeeper, and Methodist minister and his unschooled wife, who eventually worked in domestic service and as a seamstress. Following their divorce, her mother moved to New Orleans and Lewis joined her, even though at that time Louisiana state law declared children to legally belong to their fathers. As a result of Lewis' frail health, she was of no use as a farmhand and instead she was able to live with her mother, where she could obtain an education, not available to her had she remained on the farm.

Lewis never thought of herself as poor, even though the family struggled financially, because she was sustained by unwavering love and support. Throughout her childhood and adult life, Lewis' mother encouraged her and served as a role model. In addition, Lewis' intelligence and talents were acknowledged and supported by others who mentored her: a kindergarten teacher purchased a drawing; a high school shop teacher introduced her to Alain Locke's Negro Art: Past and Promise and challenged her to do her best; and a French Quarter art dealer gave her art supplies and lessons gratis. When I asked Lewis if she had aspirations as a child to make art and work with artists, she replied that she was aware of the violence and abuse surrounding her and she "didn't think of what I wanted to be when I grow up because I wasn't sure if I was going to grow up." (5)

Equally influential to Lewis' development were her educational experiences at several historically black colleges. These colleges provided employment for African American artists, who oftentimes were both studio practitioners and art historians/scholars. Lewis' first year at college, 19421943, was spent in New Orleans at Dillard University, where she was fortunate to study with Benjamin Quarles, renowned Frederick Douglass scholar, and with the African American sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett, (now residing in Mexico). (6) Catlett served as Lewis' mentor and, to this day, they remain life-long friends.

Catlett defiantly acted against segregation laws by hiring a bus to transport her students directly to the entrance of the Delgado Museum to visit a Picasso retrospective. African Americans had not been able to enter that New Orleans museum because the square in which it is located was off limits to persons of color. (7) This trip and exhibition made a lasting impression on Lewis, who was eighteen and had not previously been to a museum. …

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