Samella Lewis, Artist and Historian Focused on Advancing Black Art, Awarded CAA’s Highest Honor

As part of its annual conference, which runs through February 13, the College Art Association, a U.S.-based professional organization that promotes art history scholarship, announced the winners of its awards for 2021.

The association’s biggest prize, the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement, has been awarded to Samella Lewis, an artist and scholar. Lewis was mentored by Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, whom she met while studying at Dillard University in New Orleans, and she is best known for creating a vast number of figurative works on paper that depict various aspects of the Black experience in the United States. Her art was included in the Hammer Museum’s acclaimed exhibition “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980.”

Lewis, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in art history from Ohio State University, has also been influential as an art historian, carving out space for Black artists and creating scholarship on their art since the ’70s, a time when the mainstream often ignored or denigrated their art. Her book  African American Art and Artists, first published in 1978, is still considered one of the most important texts on the subject. She also created documentary films on African American artists like John Outterbridge, Bernie Casey, and Richmond Barthé, and coedited the two-volume book Black Artists on Art (1969 and 1971).

Lewis has held teaching positions at various universities across the country in her early career. After she was a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan, she moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s to become a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California, where she became a bedrock of the city’s art community.

In 1969, Lewis was hired as an education coordinator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she advocated for the museum to not only more fully exhibit the work of African American artists but also to hire them. During her tenure there, she cofounded a group called Concerned Citizens for Black Art that created guidelines for how the museum might better serve its community. In the years after leaving LACMA, Lewis established three art galleries in L.A. and founded the Museum of African American Art at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw mall. She was also a professor of art history at Scripps College in nearby Claremont from 1970 to 1984, and organized exhibitions at its museum.

Other CAA award recipients include artist and scholar Deborah Willis, who received the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art; Maren Hassinger, who received the Artist Award for a Distinguished Body of Work; artist Simone Leigh, who received the Distinguished Feminist Award; and Nicole R. Fleetwood, a professor of American studies and art history at Rutgers University who won two awards for her book, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, which was accompanied by an exhibition at MoMA PS1 that is on view until April 4.

The full list of recipients can be found at CAA’s website.

Correction, February 13, 2021: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Nicole R. Fleetwood’s name and title. She is a professor at Rutgers, not an independent curator, and her middle initial is R, not L. 

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