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Obeaa Woman

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Samella Lewis, American, b. February 27, 1924
Obeaa Woman, 1988
Colored pencil on paper
31 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (80 x 54 cm)

Object Type: Drawing
Technique: Drawing
Creation Place: North America, America, California
Credit Line: Gift of Kathleen O'Brien Wicker, in honor of Samella Lewis and in memory of Mr. Paul Lewis and Mrs. Rachel Taylor.
Accession Number: 2015.11.1

In interviews, Samella Lewis has spoken about the influence the religion of her family—the Yoruba religion—had on her (“Image and Belief” 59-60). She turned to those beliefs when tragedy struck: her mother was murdered. Lewis gave herself a year away from work to move through the initial waves of grief. As always, creating art brought her solace and strengthened her, giving her a means of expression beyond words. During that year, she created a piece she named Obeah Woman. It is a portrait of her Aunt Laura. As is so often the case in her work, Lewis creates a composition in which the figure dominates. Here, we see only the neck and head of a woman. The eyes are made human by the addition of irises and whites; the face is modeled (the edge of the jaw, the shadows of the cheeks and under the lower lip), giving it three dimensionality. We have before us a human being, but there is something else afoot here. The third eye, set like a faceted golden jewel well above the eyebrows, shines forth in a hexagon, at the center of her forehead, marking the highest point where the cloth covering her hair is folded back from her face. Yellow lights play over her upper lip and chin, signifying the light emanating from the third eye. Beyond the head of the woman, the light seems to continue, radiating outward in geometric patterns, delineated with powerful diagonal lines.

We, as viewers, know that what we are seeing is not a part of everyday physical reality. Instead, we are witness to an unseen power. The eyes gaze upward, in the manner of paintings of Catholic saints and martyrs. There is a black triangle on the left side of the woman’s head, and a greenish-gold triangle on the right. They seem to be balanced by a black triangle making up the right side of the woman’s nose, and a green triangle making up the left. If we considered these shapes as symbols of the binary thinking that is so much a part of the Yoruba way of looking at the cosmos, we might speculate that these are the forces of death versus life. The red triangle that runs along the right side of the face, coupled with the white triangle just above it, might be a reminder of Shango, whose colors are red and white (Teish 114). The colors may also connote the passing of her mother. It is particularly poignant to consider that Lewis’s mother was killed while making her way to church. She was 92 years old. The steadfastness given off by the figure in House of Shango (see 2015.2.18) reverberates here as well. In Obeah Woman, Lewis has portrayed a woman of great resolve, one aware that there is far more to the world than the material.

Reminiscing about a conversation she’d had with her Aunt Laura, probably when Lewis was in college, she related that her aunt was a bit upset with Lewis because she had confessed that she didn’t believe in hoodoo. In reply, Laura simply said, “You will one day, you will” (“Image and Belief” 13). Lewis’s portrayal amply depicts the strength Aunt Laura derived from her beliefs. It may testify to Lewis’s commitment to those beliefs as well.

Excepted from "Shango: Resilience and Power in the Art of Samella Lewis"
By Colleen Salomon, M.A.
Collections Database Specialist
Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery
Scripps College

Works Cited:
Lewis, Samella. Interview by Richard Candida Smith. “Image and Belief: Samella Lewis.” Art History Oral Documentation Project. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Trust, 1999. Accessed 2 July 2017.
Teish, Luisah. Jambalaya, The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals. NY: Harper Collins, 1988.

Works Consulted:

Babu, Chaya. “Finding Help and Healing through Santeria.” Buzzfeed News. Accessed 7 July 2017.
Keith, Naima J. “Samella Lewis.” “Digital Art Archive: Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980.” Hammer. Accessed 2 July 2017.
Lewis, Samella. Interview by Karen Anne Mason. March 1992. African American Artists of Los Angeles, Oral History Program, University of California, Los Angeles. Transcript, Charles E. Young Research Library, Department of Special Collections, UCLA. Accessed 2 July 2017.
Murphy, Joseph. Santeria: African Spirits in America. Boston: Beacon, 1993.
Peek, Philip M. “The Silent Voices of African Divination.” Harvard Divinity Bulletin. Summer/Autumn 2013. Accessed 7 July 2017.
“Senufo.” Tribal African Art. Accessed 7 July 2017.
Simpson, George Eaton. “The Shango Cult in Nigeria and Trinidad.” American Anthropologist (first published 1962). Wiley Online Library. 2017. Accessed 2 July 2017
Tishken, Joel E., Toyin Falola, Akintunde Akinyemi, editors. Sàngó in Africa and the African Diaspora, African Expressive Cultures series, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009.

Lower right: artist's signature and year

colored pencil on paper

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