Artist Unity Lewis is the grandson of the late Dr. Samella Lewis, the artist, historian, author, and educator who is often referred to as the godmother of Black art. (Photos by Pat Mazzera)

Art Exposed: Unity Lewis

A curator, artist and musician carries the legacy of his grandmother’s groundbreaking work documenting the Black experience

Back Web Only Nov 28, 2022 By Olivia Monahan

Over the last few years — whether it’s online, through in-person conversations or thinkpieces — there seems to be a focused trend on breaking generational curses. The concept encourages the unlearning of things people have been taught that could be detrimental to themselves or society. On the other end of the spectrum is a concept not often as lauded, but equally as important: carrying a legacy.

The work of Sacramento artist, musician and curator Unity Lewis carries on the groundbreaking work of his grandmother Dr. Samella Lewis, known by some in the art world as “the godmother of black art.” Through her seminal works such as the two-volume “Black Artists on Art,” Dr. Lewis, alongside collaborator Ruth Waddy, built a decades-long legacy of prioritizing the Black experience. She was known for broadening representation in fine art circles that have historically been gatekept behind the white gaze. 

Unity Lewis organized the The Black Artists on Art exhibition series at Crocker Art Museum.

With the recent month-long exhibition “Black Artists on Art” at The Crocker Art Museum, Unity curated an event that brought his grandmother’s book into the three-dimensional world by pairing works of artists from previous generations with their modern counterparts who will carry the torch. The exhibit will culminate in the creation of the third and fourth volumes of “Black Artists on Art,” to ensure Dr. Lewis’ original vision carries forward into the future. 

While the vision of BAOA continues, Unity is also stepping into a new role. He was recently named the West Coast emcee for internationally acclaimed orchestra Ensemble Mik Nawooj, which melds classical music and hip-hop samples together to create a new form of metamusic, wherein samples from different genres are layered to create a new sound. The group’s next scheduled performance will take place in March in Charleston, Illinois. 

Though the legacy is a heavy one, he carries it to forge new paths, through both the works he hand selects for exhibits as well as the work he creates himself. Unity spends his time seamlessly floating between music, art and curation in a way that makes many jealous of his time management skills. His music functions much in the same manner as his role in the art world — it bridges the generational gap. 

Following that theme, his last album was a modern marriage of classic funk stylings — featuring greats like George Clinton and Sly Stone from the Sly and the Family Stone — and hip-hop. The artist attempts to dig below the surface of the two seemingly separate art forms and find the common ground.

With a name like Unity, this coalescence is on brand. 

The evolution of Unity’s work has led him to peel back the layers in order to show that there are far more similarities than differences between the generations, if we are willing to dig deep enough. By exposing the things that bind people together versus what tears them apart, whatever medium Unity chooses to work through will act as a vessel that carries his family’s legacy forward. As one chapter closes and the next one begins, the excitement in Unity’s voice is almost palpable as we discuss the future. 

Do you feel like hip-hop has made an impact on your work, or who you are as an artist?

I feel like I am hip-hop, and being born with the name Unity, I feel like I was tasked to embody one of the four founding principles.  My journey through hip-hop has proven this to be true. I’ve gotten to act as a connector of different people, ideas and opportunities for people in the hip-hop culture. I’ve also been a generational bridge between the elders who unknowingly gave birth to hip-hop, and between the youth that will take this into the future and create something new. Hip-hop is a part of my DNA, and that will never change. It will only evolve. I feel like hip-hop has had that effect on everything it has touched since its conception. 

I know for different generations, hip-hop can be viewed and analyzed differently, so I’m curious what your grandmother’s view on it was?

The Black Artists on Art exhibition series celebrated legendary and contemporary Black artists and the legacy of the “Black Artists on Art” book series.

My grandmother viewed hip-hop as the natural evolution of what her and her peers were doing. All things become modern and all things become the past. And all things have their place. She was all about the progression and evolution of the culture, so she encouraged us to do the things that we needed to do to convey the current ideas and modes of expression to keep opening up a freer future for all of us.

I know there are so many things you want to work on, but what’s coming up next for you?

“Black Artists on Art” is going to be hitting the road on what we hope will be a nationwide tour.  One where we can work within the communities to be able to include work from Black artists who are local to the cities we travel to, to actually be able to learn from them as well as spread knowledge. 

What does it feel like to have a legacy to carry?

The work that my grandmother started, and the work that I’ve gotten to carry on to the next chapter, is so important to me. Being able to introduce new generations to the works of Black artists, that deserve far more shine than they get, is critical. The Black experience is an integral part of American history. It’s more than a legacy, it’s also an honor.

Edited for length and clarity.

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