Artist and historian Samella Sanders Lewis does not shy away from confrontation. As a child she found her voice through artistic expression and she was staunchly protective of her voice, fighting any force that tried to intimidate her into silence. Her career, particularly her art history education in the 1940’s was fraught with hostility and confrontation, but these challenges only sharpened her resolve.
I read through a series of interviews between the artist and Richard Candida Smith in 1997, and one excerpt was particularly interesting as it relates to the idea of identity politics. It certainly has current day relevence when I think about millennial celebrities who struggle with their fame and their identity. Reading through the volumes of this in-depth interview showed me that there is an art to confrontation, and it brings to life the old adage of “iron sharpening iron”. Here’s what Lewis had to say about identity, as she relays a conversation she had with her former teacher/mentor Elizabeth Catlett.
I just talked to Elizabeth about an hour ago, and I remember something that we used to go around and say to artists who didn’t see themselves as black artists. We used to propose these questions: Were you an artist first, or were you a human being, a person? If you were a person, what were you? When you became an artist, did you lose your identity? It’s still going on, that controversy, and I guess that’s why some artists still want to divorce themselves. I don’t think you ought to go around saying, ‘I’m a white artist,’or, ‘I’m a black artist,’ necessarily, but you can’t hide the fact that
you’re a black artist, and you don’t have to hide the fact that you’re a white artist, because in this country that’s who the artists are, and that’s who the citizens are. So that’s still a controversy.”
Compelling questions and a dialog that needs to continue in the arts today.