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Curating a Counter Narrative: Sarah E. Lewis on Art, Vision & Justice

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When Sarah E. Lewis ’01 first encountered Harvard as an undergraduate concentrating in Social Studies and History of Art and Architecture, she noticed something was missing.

“No one was teaching the topics I’m teaching now,” Lewis said, “and I had questions about what I wasn't being taught.”

Now the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities and Associate Professor of African and African American Studies, Lewis pioneers work on topics of visual representation, racial justice, and democracy in the United States. She describes herself as “a woman who takes seriously a mission put on her life to understand what we have failed to see.”

“This Book Changed My Life”

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While writing her dissertation at Yale, Lewis embarked on an ambitious and deeply formative undertaking — her now-celebrated book “The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery,” published with Simon & Schuster in 2014.

While she admits that the endeavor of writing a book about failure concurrently with a dissertation while living on a graduate student stipend seemed ill-advised, she locates much of its success in her initial naiveté. Even more, Lewis finds, failure can be a critical driving force in our conception of the creative process.

“Ignorance is bliss,” she said, laughing. “I had no idea of just how difficult it would be to write a book. And because of that, I was confident and let my imagination be my authority.”

And the authority of her imagination proved a success: she sifted through a seven-book tall stack of copies of “The Rise” in order to clear a space at a desk in her office for our conversation, each translated into a different language.

“This book took me all around the world,” she said. “And this book changed my life.”

“Vision & Justice”

But Sarah Lewis was just getting started. “The Rise” — having crystallized her ideas about the active influence of aesthetic encounters — soon gave rise to her landmark initiative, Vision & Justice.

Catalyzing research, programming, and publicly available resources and curricula, Lewis’ initiative champions the integral role of visual culture in topics of U.S. justice and equity.

In 2016, she pioneered two vital prongs of Vision & Justice and representational justice work in the U.S. — the beloved Harvard General Education course “Vision and Justice: The Art of Race and American Citizenship” and the special issue of “Aperture” magazine she guest-edited and themed “Vision & Justice.” Both are conceptually centered around the ideas of Frederick Douglass’s “Pictures and Progress” Civil War speech.

2019 saw the first Vision & Justice convening, a creative event investigating art, justice, and race hosted by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study featuring artists and activists like Carrie Mae Weems, Chelsea Clinton, Yara S. Shahidi ’22, and Amanda S. C. Gorman ’20. Set to take place every five to six years, the next convening is scheduled for 2025.

The original convening coincided with another major milestone in Lewis’ project: the publication of a free civic curriculum resource. Lewis noted that the curriculum was born out of the cold-call emails she received from high school teachers inquiring about ways to incorporate the ideas of the Aperture issue into their teaching.

“I was really surprised and encouraged by the public response to the campus work that began through teaching Vision & Justice,” Lewis said.

Vision & Justice’s public momentum certainly shows no signs of slowing.

“In my mind, it is a radial project, with multiple different avenues through which to offer resources and partnerships with institutions, with artists, with students.” she said of her future plans for the initiative.

From museums to public libraries and educational institutions across the country, Vision & Justice’s outreach will continue to render critical resources and perspectives widely accessible. This spring, Lewis will be bringing monthly condensed versions of her Harvard class to the Brooklyn Public Library. In addition, a Random House publication of “Vision & Justice” is forthcoming, set to be published in 2025.

“I Am Seen… Therefore, I Am: Isaac Julien and Frederick Douglass”

“When Skip asks, the answer is always yes,” Lewis said through a smile about curating her recent exhibition at the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art with Henry Louis Gates Jr. “He told me he’d only do it if I’d co-curate with him, which was a huge honor.”

Produced in partnership with The Amistad Center for Art & Culture, the exhibition open from May 18 until Sept. 24 paid tribute to the studio techniques employed by African American photographers during the time of Frederick Douglass as well as the subjects who sought to preserve their image. The groundbreaking exhibit included 19th century daguerreotypes of African Americans on public display for the first time, set in dialogue with Isaac Julien’s installation “Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass.”

In the process of curating the exhibit, Sarah Lewis and Henry Louis Gates Jr. visited the collection of Greg French — one of the most eminent collectors of African American photography in the nation — to see hundreds of anonymous images of free Black Americans before the Civil War.

“We sat in his living room looking at all these daguerreotypes and some ambrotypes and tintypes. And I was just stunned by, despite our expertise and energy and drive to shore up as much knowledge as we can about the nuances of Black life and historical context, that there is still so much to be done.”

On seeing French’s hundreds of anonymous images of free Black Americans before the Civil War, Lewis admitted that she felt an impulse to “pause and have all of Skip’s ‘Finding Your Roots’ team attempt to create the life story of the individual, every time.”

The exhibition placed these portraits capturing still-unknown individuals and stories in poignant conversation with the work of Isaac Julien and Frederick Douglass — offering compelling insight into the enduring significance of photography in representational justice and equality today.

“A Crisis of Regard”

An ever-rising star both in and out of the Harvard gates, Lewis has garnered some of the most prestigious recognitions for her work and impact — accomplishments including being named to Oprah’s 2010 O Power List and 2016 SuperSoul 100, receiving the 2019 inaugural Freedom Scholar Award, and being awarded a 2022 Andrew Carnegie Fellowship.

Despite her abundance of achievements, students can rest assured that Professor Lewis continues to value her role as educator.

“What animates every lecture, every class, is the knowledge that we are in an era where we have a crisis of regard. We have failed to see each other accurately.” Lewis encourages her students to truly see themselves and others, both by teaching and studying history and modeling what is possible for her students herself.

“I also know that I am creating a counter narrative. I know that as I stand as a Black woman, as a professor at Harvard,” said Lewis. For her students and for all she has impacted through her initiatives, Sarah Lewis is expanding notions of what is possible in our perceptions of ourselves and others.

“Trust in your curiosity about what you're failing to see,” Lewis advised. “You might actually be training yourself to be the very person you wanted to teach the material or to present to you what wasn't being shown or honored.”

—Staff writer Marin E. Gray can be reached at marin.gray@thecrimson.com.

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