“African American Visions: Selections from the Samella Lewis Collections” is now on view at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College. Created to honor Samella Lewis both as an artist and a former Scripps professor, the collections consist of works by Lewis, donated by Lewis and donated in honor of her contributions by friends, students and colleagues.
Lewis’s legacy at Scripps College is deserving of celebration, as she has impacted current and former students alike. During her 14 years at Scripps from 1970 to 1984, Lewis, an expert in Chinese art, diversified the Art History Department by including courses in Asian, African and African American art. The Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection serves as a teaching resource for students, following in the footsteps of Lewis’s own collection of African sculpture for the Clark Humanities Museum at Scripps.
Works by Lewis’s former student Alison Saar SC ’78 are shown in the exhibition.
“Dr. Lewis has played a key role in the evolution of my art,” Saar wrote in a tribute to her former professor.
Zoe Larkins SC ’09, a former Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery intern, wrote that Saar’s pieces Washtub Blues (2000) and Mirror, Mirror (2006) recall “parts of a black (female) cultural tradition.” “African American Visions” also references a black female cultural tradition.
Mary MacNaughton, director of the gallery, said Lewis’s work as an artist “is grounded in her life as an African American woman.” Each piece in the exhibition depicts what MacNaughton called the “African American experience,” and the majority of the artists whose works are showcased are black.
As one enters the gallery, the first art object visible is entitled Blacknuss (1995). This offset lithograph by Willie Birch serves as a sort of introduction to the exhibition, emphasizing the theme of the collection as a whole. Blacknuss is colorful; the title is block-printed many times across the piece and interspersed with hearts, pairs of hands and music notes. The word “Hallelujah” is printed at the bottom, below a piano player who seems to be making the music of “blacknuss,” making this a clearly celebratory work to open a celebratory exhibition.
Some of the most interesting works in the exhibition are the Limited Edition Club books, donated by Dr. Lewis. The books consist of texts and images by famous black writers and artists. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is paired with art by Faith Ringgold; short stories by Zora Neale Hurston are paired with the work of Betye Saar, Alison Saar’s mother.
The books are large and fragile, but guests can ask gallery staff to turn the pages in order to view each incredible illustration. Books are not a common appearance in a contemporary art gallery, but here they simply add to the multidimensionality of the exhibition. “African American Visions” includes multiple media, from photography to etching to sculpture.
Although the collection mostly consists of works by other artists, Lewis has a strong presence in the exhibition. Her work is shown in a position of prominence along the wall opposite the gallery door.
MacNaughton drew a comparison between Lewis’s work and the words of a Maya Angelou poem (found in one of the Limited Edition books) in which Angelou wrote, “I shall not be moved.” Lewis’s figures seem to speak the same message. In pieces such as Woman in the Field (1995) and I See You (2005), black women stare out of the frame calmly and strongly.
The figures compel viewers to study them but also to respect them. Gretchen Allen SC ’14 found Woman in the Field to be both “introspective and tender,” she said.
“African American Visions: Selections from the Samella Lewis Collections” is on view Wednesday through Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m., at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery through Oct. 14. In addition, curator MacNaughton will be giving a lecture about “African American Visions” on Oct. 10 at 2 p.m. in Vita Nova Hall, Room 100.