S a m e l l a --S a n d e r s- -L e w i sTT- b. -1 9 2 4



Samella Lewis’ lifelong career as an artist, art historian, critic, curator, collector, and advocate of African American art has helped empower generations of artists in the United States and worldwide, earning her the designation “the Godmother of African American art.”

Born and raised in Jim Crow era New Orleans, Lewis began her art education at Dillard University in 1941, transferring to Hampton University in Virginia where she earned her B. A. and master's degrees. She completed her master's and a doctorate in art history and cultural anthropology at Ohio State University in 1951, becoming the first female African American to earn a doctorate in fine art and art history.

Lewis taught art at Morgan State University while completing her doctorate. She became the first Chair of the Fine Arts Department at Florida A&M University in 1953. That same year Lewis also became the first African American to convene the National Conference of African American artists held at Florida A&M University. She was a professor at the State University of New York, California State University, Long Beach, and at Scripps College in Claremont, California. Lewis co-founded, with Bernie Casey, the Contemporary Crafts Gallery in Los Angeles in 1970. In 1973, she served on the selection committee for the exhibition BLACKS: USA: 1973 held at the New York Cultural Center.

Samella Lewis's 1969 catalog Black Artists on Art, featured accomplished black artists typically overlooked in mainstream art galleries. She said of the book, "I wanted to make a chronology of African American artists, and artists of African descent, to document our history. The historians weren't doing it. It was really about the movement." 

From the 1960s through the 1970s, her work, which included lithographs, linocuts, and serigraphs, reflected her concerns with the values of human dignity, democracy, and freedom of expression. Between 1969 and 70, Lewis and E.J. Montgomery were consultants for a groundbreaking exhibition at the Oakland Public Library designed to create greater awareness of African American history and art.

Lewis was the founder of the International Review of African American Art in 1975. In 1976, she founded the Museum of African-American Art with a group of artistic, academic, business, and community leaders in Los Angeles, California. Lewis, the museum’s senior curator, organized exhibitions and developed new ways of educating the public about African American art. She celebrated the work as an “art of experience’ inspired by the artists’ lives. And she espoused the concept of African American art as an "art of tradition", urging museums to explore the African roots of African American art. In 1984, Lewis produced an extensive monograph on Elizabeth Catlett, her beloved mentor at Dillard University. 

Lewis has been an collecting art since 1942, focusing primarily on the WPA era and work created during the Harlem Renaissance. Pieces from her collection were acquired by the Hampton University Museum in Virginia, the world’s earliest collection of African American fine art.

In 2015, Unity Lewis, Samella’s grandson, with art entrepreneur Trevor Parham created The Legacy Exhibit, which featured three generations of black artists, including artists from Lewis’ original publication "Black Artists on Art”and contemporary artists. The show launched their recruitment of 500 black American artists who will be included in updated volumes of the compendium.

Exhibitions of Lewis’ work include, Samella Lewis and George Clack, Brockman Gallery, Los Angeles, 1969; Solo Exhibition, University Union Gallery, California Polytechnic State University, Pomona, California, 1980; Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, the United States and Canada, 1980; Solo exhibition, Pasadena City College, Pasadena, California, 1981; Solo exhibition, University of California, San Diego, 1981; African American Art in Atlanta, Public and Corporate Collections, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia, 1984; Solo exhibition, Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles, California, 1984; Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, California, 2011.

Lewis’ many recognitions and awards include the Fulbright Fellowship to study Asian culture at First Institute of Chinese Civilization and Tung Mai University, Taiwan, 1962; National Defense Education Act postdoctoral fellow at University of Southern California, studying Chinese language and Asian civilization, 1964-65; UNICEF Award for the Visual Arts, 1995; Named a Distinguished Scholar by the Getty Center for the History of Art and Humanities, 1996-97; Charles White lifetime Achievement Award, 1993; The History Maker Award, 2003; Special Day Recognition Award for Outstanding Contributions from the City of New Orleans, 2004; Alumni Association Award from the Ohio State University, 2005; Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement from the College Art Association; 2021.

The House of ShangoTT-1992, Lithograph.

Edition 60. Signed, dated, titled, and numbered 31/60 in pencil.

Image size 24 x 18 inches (610 x 457 mm); sheet size 30 inches x 22 1/4 inches (762 x 565 mm).

A superb, richly-inked impression, on Arches cream wove paper; the full sheet with margins (1 1/4 to 3 1/2 inches), in excellent condition.

“The title of this piece is an unmistakable harkening to African roots. Shango is a religious practice with origins in Yoruba (Nigerian) belief, deifying a god of thunder by the same name. Shango has been adopted in the Caribbean, most notably in Trinidad and Tobago, a fact that underscores the importance of transnationalism to Samella Lewis’s piece. Her work often grapples with issues of race in the U.S., and The House of Shango is no exception. Through a reliance on the gradual transformation of Shango—one that took place across continents and time—Lewis’s piece forms a powerful link between black Americans and their African and Caribbean counterparts. The figure depicted in the piece appears to emerge, quite literally, from the house of Shango. Given the roots and transformative process of the religion, The House of Shango can draw attention to the historical intersections to which black American culture is indebted.” —Laura Woods, Scripps College, Ruth Chander Williamson Gallery, Collection Highlights, 2018