What does it mean to carry a legacy? To be tasked with protecting the stories, the lessons, the art and the beauty of your ancestors while simultaneously ensuring the next generation is able to learn from it?
For Unity Lewis it means everything. Which is why he has taken on the heady challenge of bringing the work of artist, historian, and groundbreaking builder of cultural institutions, Dr. Samella Lewis, to the forefront.
“This work is a visual display of Black culture, and American history that spans across generations,” Unity Lewis said. “Artists who helped found the Harlem Renaissance, and the Black Artists Movement are being shown alongside amazing contemporary work from artists in the Sacramento area. Ones who are sure to be household names soon. That’s monumental.”
The monument to Black artists is in place at Project 25, an 1,100-square-foot gallery that opened in midtown during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s right, this historically significant show honoring the life’s work of Dr. Lewis is happening at a locally owned, locally run, locally curated gallery.
Not the Crocker.
Not the MOMA.
THE GODMOTHER OF BLACK ART
Dr. Samella Lewis was born in New Orleans in 1924. Coming of age in the era of the Jim Crow South, her life experiences and observations shaped the art she was born to create. Spending time observing artists in the French Quarter during her youth, Lewis became friends with a woman whose lover was a portrait painter. He agreed to give Lewis lessons and she studied with him for nearly two years. The time gave Lewis the foundation she needed to discover her passion for art. Not long after, she enrolled in New Orleans’ Dillard University, where she met Elizabeth Catlett.
Catlett was a bold and politically active artist and professor who started the Fine Art Department at Dillard; an already impressive feat made even more so at a time when New Orleans was still very much a segregated city. In fact, one of her well-known moves as a professor included persuading the New Orleans Museum of Art to admit Black students for the first time to view a Pablo Picasso exhibition. Lewis was one of those students.
Their relationship blossomed, with Catlett becoming a mentor to Lewis. That mentorship extended over time to more than just art; Catlett was a big, booming voice in Lewis’ ear. He encouraged her and helped her find the voice she’d held in for so long — thoughts, and ideas that brewed at the surface of Lewis’ mind. The inspiration was felt in Lewis’ art, each piece progressing into new territories. After her time at Dillard, and on the suggestion of another professor, Lewis transferred first to Hampton for her bachelors degree in art history, and then Ohio State, first for her master’s, then for her double doctorate. She was the first Black woman to receive those degrees in the country. On top of her schooling, and the teaching she was subsequently doing, Lewis continued to create art. Her work included lithographs, linocuts and serigraphs, all centered around the topics of humanity and freedom in whatever form or function she felt necessary.
Her career took her through many different avenues. Artist. Professor. Historian. Moreover, she was a creator of institutions; Lewis helped found the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles and the International Review of African American Art, which became one of the leading publications for educating people about the many contributions Black artists made to visual arts.
The culmination of Lewis’ work came with her monumental book series “Black Artists on Black Art.” The two-volume collection was, and half a century later still is, considered a seminal work in the lexicon of Black art. The collection brought together artists such as Ruth Waddy (who also co-organized the first volume,) Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, Jacob Lawrence and so many more. They cataloged and spoke on their work themselves rather than through a forced narrative of others. It was something that had never been done before. Dr. Lewis’ tireless efforts to focus the spotlight on Black artists who would normally have been left out of the conversation, all while constantly building platforms to continually push the work forward, earned her the nickname “The Godmother of Black Art.”
THE TORCH PASSES
An artist whose work is currently featured at Golden 1 Center. A musician with millions of streams and collaborations with Grammy Award-winning artists. A former college professor. A father. Much like his grandmother before him, Unity Lewis is someone who wears many hats.
As one of four current artists-in-residence at Project 25 he took on the additional role of collaborator and facilitator by purposely bringing the Black Artists on Art showcase to this gallery. He brought it because the gallery is one where collaboration, accessibility, empowerment, and the upliftment of BIPOC artists continually rises to the forefront, he said.
“Fifty years after the second volume of BAOA was released, I wanted to both preserve and continue the work because it’s a legacy that represents more than just my grandmother,” Lewis said. “It’s the legacy of the Black Arts Movement, and how it has grown and developed over the decades. … “
“We’re still marginalized as a people. Our historical contributions aren’t taught in schools. Our accomplishments are undermined while our creativity is simultaneously plagiarized. It is now, and has always been, up to us to protect and preserve our culture. It’s a responsibility we’re taking on so future generations understand their heritage. This felt like the space to make that happen.”
The ‘we’ he refers to is the group effort that came together to make this show a reality. The work of Lewis was matched with Project 25 co-owners/curators Shane Lassiter, Rob Martinez, founding gallery member Mark Escobedo and Black Artist Foundry’s Faith McKinnie. They worked to pair contemporary artists such as Brandon Gastinell, Jupiter the Artist, Shonna McDaniels, Halcyon Clay, Christopher Williams and Lewis himself, along with the timeless work of BAOA/BAM artists featured in Dr. Lewis’ book.
The result was the team created an explosively dynamic and powerful show that inspires awe. Each piece speaks volumes on its own, yet with expert curation and well-intentioned design, the full breadth of the show as a collaborative work between the past and the present is one that should be seen — and probably more than once.
With artists whose breadth of work is worthy of the MOMA, and a pay-as-you-can donation entry fee, Project 25 defies the narrative that fine art should only be accessible to the privileged few. Everyone in Sacramento can take part in this living, breathing testament to the preservation of a culture.
“This isn’t just art history, this isn’t just Black history; this is American history,” Project 25 curator Lassiter said. “Our goal is to provide a safe space for all races, ages and walks of life to learn about the experiences of Black artists in America — especially because the same experiences that were being documented 50-plus years ago are still so relevant to the struggles our people are experiencing to this day. It reminds us that as we exist in the present, we still have so much to learn from our past. It doesn’t get more important than that.”
With the exhibit open until July 3, and events happening each weekend to help create community and conversations around the art, Lewis, Martinez and Lassiter prepped for a whirlwind. But it’s the kind they welcome. It’s the kind that brings people together to experience something that otherwise they may have never known about. That kind of accessibility is what makes the work everyone at Project 25 is doing so important.
Founding member Escobedo brought the space to fruition with that exact intention in mind. From the very beginning, his purpose seemed to help the stars align, bringing each person into the fold piece by piece, until the puzzle came together and formed the bigger picture. It’s a space made for the people who need art the most, the ones who have the most to learn from its stories.
“It couldn’t have happened without Mark (Escobedo),” Lewis said.
“We all want the same thing, and that is to see this space, and every artist that is housed within its walls, succeed,” Martinez said. “We all work together with that in mind, and we do it without ego. It’s helped us build a well-formed, tight-knit group, and we can’t wait to see what’s next.”
THE PAST, THE PRESENT, THE FUTURE
If Dr. Lewis’ legacy speaks to anything, it is that art must be accessible to all because it is more than just a painting hanging on a wall or a sculpture resting on a shelf. Art is one of the few entities where no one else controls your story but you. It is a place where ancient hieroglyphs spell out hard-learned lessons for future generations and bold brush strokes transmute pain and hurt into beautifully reclaimed power. It tells a history often left out of school books. It gives a voice to those who are often silenced.
“If it wasn’t for people like my grandmother, artists, and Black artists especially would not have the freedoms and liberties that they do today,” Lewis said, “… the desire in me to preserve and further our culture, and cultural traditions is probably why I’ve been assigned as the steward to my grandmother’s legacy.”
If you go
The Black Artists on Art exhibit is currently taking place at Project 25, located at 1017 25th street, between J and K in Midtown Sacramento. The exhibit is open until July 3rd.
Credit: Source link