Sacramento’s Project 25 tells the story of black artists
What does it mean to carry an heirloom? Be responsible for protecting the stories, lessons, art and beauty of your ancestors while ensuring that the next generation can learn from them?
For Unity Lewis, that means everything. This is why he took up the heady challenge of bringing to the fore the work of artist, historian and creator of cultural institutions, Dr. Samella Lewis.
“This work is a visual presentation of black culture and American history that spans several generations,” Unity Lewis said. “The artists who helped found the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Artists Movement are featured alongside incredible contemporary works by artists from the Sacramento area. Those who are sure to become household names soon. It’s monumental.
The monument to black artists is in place at Project 25, a 1,100-square-foot gallery that opened in the downtown area amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s right, this historically significant exhibit honoring Dr. Lewis’s lifelong work takes place at a local gallery, locally run and locally organized.
Not the Crocker.
Not the MOMA.
THE SPONSOR OF BLACK ART
Dr. Samella Lewis was born in New Orleans in 1924. During Jim Crow South’s time, her life experiences and observations shaped the art for which she was born. Spending time observing artists in the French Quarter as a youth, Lewis befriended a woman whose lover was a portrait painter. He agreed to teach Lewis and she studied with him for almost two years. Time gave Lewis the foundation she needed to discover her passion for art. Soon after, she enrolled at Dillard University in New Orleans, where she met Elizabeth Catlett.
Catlett was a daring and politically active artist and teacher who launched Dillard’s fine arts department; an already impressive feat made even more so at a time when New Orleans was still a highly segregated city. In fact, one of his well-known movements as a teacher was to persuade the New Orleans Museum of Art to admit black students for the first time to see an exhibition by Pablo Picasso. Lewis was one of those students.
Their relationship blossomed, with Catlett becoming Lewis’s mentor. This mentorship has extended over time to more than just art; Catlett was a loud thunderous voice in Lewis’s ear. He encouraged and helped her find the voice she had held for so long – thoughts and ideas that sprouted on the surface of Lewis’ mind. Inspiration was felt in Lewis’ art, with each piece progressing to new territories. After her stint at Dillard, and at the suggestion of another professor, Lewis was transferred first to Hampton for her bachelor’s degree in art history, then to Ohio State, first for her master’s, then for his double doctorate. She was the first black woman to receive these degrees in the country. In addition to her schooling and subsequent education, Lewis continued to create art. Her work included lithographs, linocuts, and serigraphs, all centered around themes of humanity and freedom in whatever form or function she deemed necessary.
Her career has taken her through many different paths. Artist. Professor. Historian. In addition, she was the creator of institutions; Lewis helped found the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles and the International Review of African American Art, which has become one of the leading publications to educate people about the many contributions of black artists to the visual arts.
The highlight of Lewis’s work came with his monumental “Black Artists on Black Art” book series. The two-volume collection was, and still is half a century later, considered a flagship work in the lexicon of black art. The collection brought together artists such as Ruth Waddy (who also co-curated the first volume), Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, Jacob Lawrence and many more. They cataloged and talked about their work themselves rather than through forced narration from others. It was something that had never been done before. Dr. Lewis’ tireless efforts to draw attention to black artists who would normally have been left out of the conversation, while constantly building platforms to continually advance the work, have earned her the nickname ‘The Godmother of the World’. ‘black art’.
An artist whose work is currently on display at the Golden 1 Center. A musician with millions of streams and collaborations with Grammy Award-winning artists. A former university professor. A father. Much like his grandmother before him, Unity Lewis is someone who wears multiple hats.
As one of four artists currently in residence at Project 25, he has taken on the additional role of collaborator and facilitator by willingly bringing the Black Artists on Art showcase to this gallery. He brought it because the gallery is a gallery where the collaboration, accessibility, empowerment and upliftment of BIPOC artists are continually at the forefront, he said.
“Fifty years after the release of BAOA’s second volume, I wanted to both preserve and continue the work because it’s a legacy that is more than my grandmother,” said Lewis. “It’s the legacy of the black arts movement and how it has grown and developed over the decades. … ”
“We are still marginalized as a people. Our historical contributions are not taught in schools. Our accomplishments are undermined while our creativity is simultaneously plagiarized. It is up to us now and always has been to protect and preserve our culture. It is a responsibility we take on so that future generations understand their heritage. It was like the space to get there.
The “we” he refers to is the group effort that has come together to make this show a reality. Lewis’s work has been paired with Project 25 co-owners / curators Shane Lassiter, Rob Martinez, founding gallery member Mark Escobedo, and Faith McKinnie of Black Artist Foundry. They have worked to bring together contemporary artists such as Brandon Gastinell, Jupiter the Artist, Shonna McDaniels, Halcyon Clay, Christopher Williams and Lewis himself, as well as the timeless work of BAOA / BAM artists featured in Dr Lewis’s book.
The result was that the team created an explosively dynamic and powerful spectacle that inspires awe. Each piece speaks volumes in itself, but with expert curation and well-intentioned design, the full extent of the exhibition as a collaborative work between past and present must be seen – and probably more than once. .
With artists whose scope of work is worthy of MOMA and an à la carte entrance fee, Project 25 challenges the narrative that fine art should only be accessible to the privileged few. Everyone in Sacramento can participate in this living and breathing testimony to the preservation of a culture.
“It’s not just art history, it’s not just black history; this is American history, ”said Lassiter, curator of Project 25.“ Our goal is to provide a safe space for all races, ages and backgrounds to learn more about the experiences of black artists in America – especially because the same experiences that were documented over 50 years ago are still so relevant to struggles. our people still know today. It reminds us that, as we exist in the present, we still have a lot to learn from our past. It doesn’t get more important than that.
With the exhibition open until July 3 and events held every weekend to help build community and conversations around art, Lewis, Martinez and Lassiter have prepared for a whirlwind. But that’s the kind they welcome. It’s the kind that brings people together to experience something they might never have experienced otherwise. This type of accessibility is what makes the work everyone does at Project 25 so important.
Founding member Escobedo made the space a reality with this exact intention in mind. From the start, his goal seemed to help the stars align, bringing each person into the crease piece by piece, until the puzzle came together and formed a larger picture. It is a space designed for the people who need art the most, those 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’s to see this space, and every artist that’s housed within its walls, succeed,” Martinez said. “We all work together with this in mind, and we do it without ego. It has helped us build a well-formed and cohesive group, and we can’t wait to see what happens next. “
THE PAST, THE PRESENT, THE FUTURE
If Dr. Lewis’ legacy speaks to anything, it’s that art should be accessible to everyone because it is more than just a painting hanging on a wall or a sculpture on a shelf. Art is one of the few entities where no one other than you controls your story. It’s a place where ancient hieroglyphics explain hard-learned lessons for future generations, and bold brushstrokes transmute pain and sorrow into beautifully reclaimed power. It tells a story often forgotten in textbooks. He gives voice to those who are often silenced.
“If it weren’t for people like my grandmother, black artists and artists in particular wouldn’t have the freedoms and freedoms they have today,” Lewis said, “. .. the desire in me to preserve and promote our culture, and cultural traditions is probably the reason why I was appointed as the steward of my grandmother’s inheritance.
If you are going to
The Black Artists on Art exhibition is currently taking place at Project 25, located at 1017 25th Street, between J and K in Midtown Sacramento. The exhibition is open until July 3.