SAMELLA LEWIS By Greg Angaza Pitts From Artillery magazine's June/July 2012



By  Greg Angaza  Pitts  From Artillery magazine's  June/July 2012 Vol.6 issue 5  p.27  Here's a link - Artillery%20review%20of%20Samella%20Lewis%20at%20Louis%20Stern%20Ga...


Composed  of two sections, “Samella Lewis and the African-American  Experience”

stretched  the margins   of  PST’s  prescribed  time line  from 1945 – 1980   with  the earliest work  dated 1930 - and  the most recent  in 2011.  The first section consisted of  26 works whose presence  felt like a compromised and abbreviated retrospective.  The  second section  consisted of 30  works from her private collection .  Both  sections  were shuffled together  into  a  “blended  installation”, that posed an unexpected  challenge  for  the  newcomer to track her work .


Curators  might  have considered  editing  out  the  collection in favor of more of  her  own  work to create  a more comprehensive  examination of  her  oeuvre.  On it’s own , her work  offers  a  visually compelling  paper trail  of the African-American experience . Perhaps they could  have  restructured the  two parts  into  consecutive  exhibitions . At  the  same time, one can  appreciate  her  desire to frame her work  within a broader cultural context  and  recognize  her  extensive  support  system  for  artists  throughout the  Diaspora.


Lewis’  has    remarkably   navigated  through  the “double  whammy” of  being  female  and  Black - growing  up in the  Deep  South  (b. 1923 in   New Orleans) , living  through  the  Great Depression,  earning  a B.A. degree  from  Hampton University, and  subsequently an  M.A.  in  fine  art  and a  Ph.D. in art history from Ohio  State  University.   Against  this  backdrop   of  academic  benchmarks ,  she  opened  Multi-Cul  Gallery  (later  becoming  Gallery  Tanner),  founded  the  Museum of   African-American  Art  in  1976 in the  Baldwin  Hills  Crenshaw Plaza , created  and published  Black  Art  Quarterly , founded The Gallery at Scripps College where she taught from 1970-1984  wrote seven books , and produced  five  films on  African-American art  while  managing  the  role  of  a   working  mother,  and  carving  out  time  to  make  art .


The artist’s   section  included  a  delicately  rendered  colored  pencil  work  entitled  “Mother and Child”  (2002).  The facial  treatment found  on   the  mother and son  recalls   the  contour  and  concave  facial  planes  present  in  several   Afrikan  tribal  masks (i.e. Guro and Kwele),   and  is a shared  strategy  with   artist   Elizabeth Catlett .   A   hand  colored  lithographic portrait  titled “First Phase” (2005), showcases  the  artist’s   mature  style. The control  and  certainty, invested in  each  line  resonates with  the  decisiveness  and improvisational  wisdom one  encounters  in  Asian  calligraphy . This sense  of  decisiveness  and finality  shows up  in  direct  counterpoint to  the  ambiguity  of  form  found  in  “Symbol” (1964).   The  open ended  quality  of  this  work ,  leaves  room  to  insert  personal  meaning  into  this cryptic symbology , which  for  me  reads like deconstructed fallout  from  an  Egyptian ankh  colliding  with   a deconstructing  Dogon  kanaga  mask .


The  linocut  entitled  “Field”, going  back to  1968, shows  a  field  hand  gazing up, and reaching  toward  the  sun .  An  energy  surge of high speed  expressionist  lines , forms a  visual  equivalent  to  the “sound  rush”  of notes found in a Coltrane  solo.  “Field”co-signs   Herman “Kofi”  Bailey’s  use  of  energetic and expressionist  lines that occupy a  number of  his charcoal drawings . In  the  end , Lewis  reminds  us  that  the  true purpose of  art  is  not about anticipating, predicting, negotiating, strategizing or calculating  art-smart  moves on  an aesthetic  chess board , but  to engage in the  creative process   for  the  joy  of  it .


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Comment by Bettye W. Harwell on August 27, 2012 at 2:07pm
I really like your post and the information about Ms. Lewis. Her work is wonderful and inspiring. Thanks for your magazine ( new to me.)

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