Samella Lewis, a Black artist and art historian who did more than just decry the racial blinders of the white art establishment, in part by founding a museum dedicated to promoting Black arts, died on May 27 in Torrance, Calif., near Los Angeles. She was 99.
Her son Claude Lewis said the cause was renal failure.
Keasha Dumas Heath, executive director of the Museum of African American Art, the institution Dr. Lewis founded in Los Angeles in 1976, noted her wide-ranging impact, calling her, in an email, “a leading voice in the scholarship on Black art, and a promoter of new pathways for Black artists.”
“She envisioned opportunities that did not yet exist for Black artists,” she added, “and then she created them.”
In a remarkably varied career, Dr. Lewis also co-founded an arts journal, helped run galleries, made films about Black artists, taught at universities and wrote well-regarded books, most notably “Art: African American,” first published in 1978. That book (later republished as “African American Art and Artists”) remains influential, said Kellie Jones, a noted art historian at Columbia University, which, she said, is characteristic of Dr. Lewis’s various efforts: They have endured.
“She starts a magazine: Still in print,” she said in a phone interview. “The museum: still there.”
“She did it all,” Dr. Jones added. “She really did it all.”
Samella Sanders was born on Feb. 27, 1923, in New Orleans to Samuel and Rachel Sanders. (Two oral histories give her birth year as 1924, but her son said that she came to believe that 1923 was correct.) Her father was a farmer, and her mother was a domestic worker.
She grew up in Ponchatoula, La., northwest of New Orleans, and was drawing from a young age. In an oral history recorded in 1992 by the Center for Oral History Research at the University of California, Los Angeles, she said her first sale of an artwork was to her kindergarten teacher, who was impressed with how she had handled an assignment to draw a pig.
“All the other children were doing brown pigs, white pigs, so I drew a purple one,” she said. “And I was determined that, in doing that pig, that I was not going to stay within anybody’s lines. I just drew lines, but then I moved outside of them. It was like the pig was vibrating.”
She enrolled at Dillard University in New Orleans intending to study history, she said, but at the urging of her high school art teacher, she took a freshman art course. Her professor was the artist Elizabeth Catlett, who became an important influence artistically and in terms of activism. When they would ride the bus together, for instance, Ms. Catlett would do things like grab the “For Colored Patrons Only” sign demarcating the Black seats and throw it out the window — a revelatory action for a young student who had simply accepted the racial situation in Louisiana as the way things are.
“There I am sitting there, having grown up under these circumstances, and here this woman comes and disrupts the whole situation,” Dr. Lewis said in the oral history.
Ms. Catlett changed her approach to art as well.
“One of the important things I learned in Elizabeth’s class is that you don’t paint people without knowing something about them and who they are and where they are,” she said. “I was painting these portraits, and she would say, ‘Who is this?’ And I would say, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Well, what are you painting it for?’”
After two years she transferred to the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia, earning a bachelor’s degree in art history there in 1945.
She went on to do graduate work at Ohio State University, first studying printmaking, then sculpture, although she encountered some resistance in that genre.
“I ran into problems of not only racism but also sexism,” she said, “where my professors felt that women shouldn’t do welding” because of the heavy equipment involved. So she focused on painting and on broadening her study of art history, developing particular expertise in Asian and pre-Columbian art. She earned a master’s degree there in 1948 — the year she married Paul G. Lewis, a mathematician — and in 1951 became the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in fine arts and art history at the university. A posting on a university website once called her “the godmother of African-American art.”
In 1953 Dr. Lewis was appointed head of the art department at Florida A&M University, which needed bolstering. According to the book “African Americans in the Visual Arts” (2003), by Steven Otfinoski, she once told the university president that she would paint his portrait in exchange for more funding for her department.
The Lewises became active in civil rights issues, and harassment by the Ku Klux Klan and others led them to leave Florida in 1958, when Dr. Lewis took a teaching post at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh. In 1966 she took a post at California State University at Long Beach. That same year she made the first of several short documentaries, “The Black Artists,” a survey of African American art.
Though she was vocal about Black art and artists, Dr. Lewis said that, especially in her teaching, she tried to draw on her expertise in Asian art and other areas to make connections.
“I never taught courses where I closed the door: ‘This is African art and this is Caribbean art,’” she said in the oral history. “I tried to show interrelationships.”
But as the 1960s turned more strident, so did she on the subject of white domination of the art world. In late 1968 she left academia to be the coordinator of education at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, hoping to elevate Black art there.
“Anybody can have a quick Black show,” she told The Los Angeles Times at the time, but she sought more substantive change. She lasted a little more than a year before quitting, so frustrated at the lack of progress that she picketed her own museum.
“We have gone through several periods — slavery, emancipation, underpaid and overworked, pacification, integration, trying to prove something instead of dwelling in our own household,” she told The Progress-Bulletin of Pomona, Calif., in early 1972. “I’m fed up with this proving of self.”
In 1969, with Ruth Waddy, she published “Black Artists on Art,” forming her own publishing house, Contemporary Crafts, to do it. In it, Black artists spoke out, some vehemently, about their work and the obstacles they faced. The book (which was followed by a second volume in 1971) rattled the art establishment and the people who covered it, including William Wilson, art critic for The Los Angeles Times.
“Statements by artists range from modest affirmations of a desire to make art of worth, to frankly militant rejections ‘of the intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals who dominate the art scene’ and of white culture in general,” Mr. Wilson wrote in a review, in which he seemed to find the challenge thrown down by the book to be off-putting.
Dr. Lewis was also looking for ways around the white establishment. She had already helped establish the National Conference of Artists, a professional organization for Black artists, which continues today. And after leaving the Los Angeles museum, she was a founder of the Multi-Cul Gallery in Los Angeles, which focused on Black art and on selling works at prices almost anyone could afford.
In 1975 she and two others founded Black Art: An International Quarterly, which continues today under the name International Review of African American Art. Then, in 1976, came her Museum of African American Art, which has mounted exhibitions and run educational programs ever since.
Dr. Lewis resumed teaching in 1969 at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., where she remained for 15 years and which now houses the Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection. Over the years she curated numerous exhibitions at galleries and museums.
And throughout her busy life, she found time to make her own art. Her paintings and prints have been exhibited in solo and group shows all over the country.
Her husband died in 2013. In addition to her son Claude, she is survived by another son, Alan, and three grandchildren.
During a talk in Columbus, Ohio, in 2000, Dr. Lewis had a simple explanation for why people should respect artists of all races and backgrounds and try to hear what they are saying.
“They can tell us what will happen in the future,” she said. “They can tell us what we should have seen in the past.”