Norman Lewis self-portrait

By Sharon Bingaman RN

African Americans excel in whatever field they choose and have to fight for a spot, even though they have not been allowed to have an even playing field anywhere…But Africans have been involved with the visual Arts from the beginning of man as can be seen on the walls of the temples of Ancient Africans along with statues and masks from tens of thousands of years ago. Art as described by Joseph A. Bailey II, MD in his book, Word Stories Originated by Ancient Africans, is “a symbolic way of gaining a sense of mastery over unpredictable events, of communing with mysterious unseen powers, or imposing meanings and values upon an indifferent world”. Norman Lewis and his fellow visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance (about 1919-1935) played a major part in depicting the New Negro movement. His early works were scenes of Harlem life he saw all around him as in bread lines, swap meets, scenes of evictions and police brutality. But as Mr. Lewis grew in his work he realized that he had a decision to make. He could continue on the path of the social realist (painting realistic pictures of life) or follow his growing passion for abstract expressionism (which in the African sense means depicting of a whole made of several integral parts acting together with each other to fulfill the will of the whole) to depict black urban life, his peoples’ struggles and his feelings. The choice was to stay with what was popular or follow his passion. He knew there would be a price to pay either way but he had to stay true to himself. His beginning career achievements gained limited acceptance and appreciation.

Born in Harlem, New York in 1909, Norman Wilfred Lewis was one of three children of Bermudian parents. Neither of his parents were artistic and both felt that art was not a suitable profession But this was just something he felt he had to do and a way to express what he saw and his community and later , around the world. As a child he took jobs like delivering groceries and newspapers for spending money and to be able to buy meager art supplies. He didn’t read books as a child because, he said, it just was not done in his neighborhood unless you wanted to be thought of as strange. He regretted this error in judgement to such an extent that throughout the rest of his life he gathered and cherished a large collection of books on Art. In order to continue to support himself he took a job as a pressor with a tailor in the neighborhood where he learned to make clothes which came in handy later and spent two to three years as a seaman.

Norman Lewis had been searching for his place in the world since he began his career in Art. He said that growing up, not hearing any Black history or seeing artistic portrayals of Black people was very discouraging. An early notable episode of racism occurred coming back from a trip to New Orleans. He mistakenly sat in a “whites only” section of the train and had to undergo the humiliation of relocating to the “colored section”. His comment after that episode was,“ I don’t think white people know they have this kind of violence. It is just part of their way of living which they have become accustomed to”. There were times in his career that he doubted his abilities saying, “I felt I just didn’t have it. Yet, I had it and I think that this is the brain washing that America does”.

He was part of the mix of young African American artists that would go on to be well known and successful. He would spend time with Augusta Savage, Palmer Hayden, and Malvin Gray Johnson to name a few. In the 1930’s he would be part of the group of artists working for The WPA (Works Projects Administration)

By the 1940s his work began to be more directed to abstract forms and this displeased many who felt Black art should not be portrayed in such a way. He was left out of many exhibitions that featured both Black and White artists. Of course that meant he wasn’t as well- known as others nor did his work, at that time, bring as big a price as others who had stuck to more traditional ways of expressing Black life. But he remained active in both his career and work fighting social inequality as lived by him and the African American community. In 1963 he founded SPIRAL which was a group of like-minded Black artists whose aim was to use their art talent to contribute to the Civil Rights movement. He was also teaching and in doing so he said he found joy because he was offering something of his own. It wasn’t until toward the end of his life that he finally began to gain world-wide recognition. His death came in 1979. Only recently did a piece of his work sell for $800,000.00 as covered on the news. His daughter, in that news coverage, related her father had told her he expected his work would become more popular 30 to 40 years after his death and his prediction looks as though it has come to pass.

There is a point in telling the story of Norman Lewis. Here is a man who endured discrimination in both his personal and professional life. European society discriminated against him because of his color time and again. Both Black and White artists and critics dismissed his work as not important. This dismissal of his work was based on using the standard of European abstract art which meant not representing external, recognizable reality but achieving the desired artistic effect with shapes, forms, colors and textures. He stood firm in his decision to depict what he was feeling in his own way and suffer the consequences. What Norman Lewis was creating was pure African Tradition Abstract art which is a whole made of several integral parts acting together inside an interchange to fulfill the Will of the source of the whole. Because of the Correspondences of the essences residing in his work, he was able to mesh the ingredients in the involved Events and Things into a unit that otherwise differed widely in form and external appearance. He was in tune with the Cosmic Spiritual forces within his being. With his talent, Norman Lewis found a way of “communing with mysterious unseen powers and imposing meanings and values upon an indifferent world”. He was being true to the Spiritual Elements of Unconditional Love, Truth, Reality and the Natural in Ancient African Philosophy.

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