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The Samella Lewis Initiative for the Study of Black Art

The Samella Lewis Initiative for the Study of Black Art

The Samella Lewis Initiative for the Study of Black Art (SLISBA) builds upon the spirit of Dr. Samella Lewis, an artist, educator, publisher, and author dedicated to archiving and producing Black art and its histories. We work to gather and generate a community of artists, writers, educators, and cultural workers whose practices embody Lewis’s life and work.


art image by Samella Lewis

As a student at The Ohio State University, Lewis was the first Black woman to earn a Doctorate in Art and the History of Art (1951). In her dissertation titled “The Problem of Painting as Instrument for Portrayal of Individual and Group Relationships,” Lewis undertakes a sweeping analysis of the role of art in the making of subjects, relationships, contexts, and environment in Iberia Parish, Louisiana, “the largest sugar-producing area in the state” when Lewis began her research. Steadfast in her insistence that art, history, and life are interrelated, Lewis’s study includes original plates painted by the artist herself [see figures].

In what is clearly a trailblazing effort in interdisciplinarity, Lewis’s study is punctuated with elements of first-person prose, rigorous historical research, material study, and sociological nuance. Lewis concludes with a reflection on painting’s purpose:

Purpose is related to a concept of meaning of subject matter. When this is seen as isolated phenomena, purpose is directed toward imitation, representation, duplication of the status quo with the focus on differences as ends. When subject matter is realized in relational terms, purpose focuses on commonalities while differences become instrumental means of sharpening the meaning of the complex relations that make up the whole. With clarity of meaning, purpose also includes, for this artist, the need for making an impact on the understanding of people by people, and in the final analysis she sees art as a basic means for furthering human relations.[1]


cover of Samella Lewis dissertation
art image by Samella Lewis - figurative work with bold lines and colors

Lewis’s study calls attention to the interrelation of content and form, and an adamant insistence that art take on the interrelation of social forces and subjectivities. For Lewis, thinking through racial difference should not be a point of arrival, but a point of departure from which we can mine those unearthed histories, present-tense activations, and future visions of collectivity. It is in that same spirit that we convene The Samella Lewis Initiative for the Study of Black Art.

Currently, the Samella Lewis Initiative is working on two key projects: 1) ongoing writing sessions to support scholars writing about Black art across institutions and backgrounds, and 2) a series of events that bring artists and scholars to campus to discuss pressing issues in the field.

[1] Lewis, Samella. “The Problem of Painting as Instrument for Portrayal of Individual and Group Relationships.” PhD dissertation, Ohio State University, 1951. 147.

SLISBA was founded by Sampada Aranke and Benjamin L. Jones in honor of Dr. Lewis who paved the way for many of us who came after.