From left, Nicole R. Fleetwood and Samella Lewis


AN INTERGENERATIONAL SLATE of artists and scholars was recognized by the College Art Association (CAA) with 2021 Awards for Distinction. In previous years, one or a few of the honorees have been Black. This year, there were several. Recipients of the juried awards included Samella Lewis, Deborah Willis, Nicole R. Fleetwood, Simone Leigh, Charles L. Davis II, and Maren Hassinger. The winners were honored at CAA’s annual conference, during the convocation. The virtual event was held Feb. 10.

Lewis, 96, was honored with the 2021 Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement. A legendary figure in the field of African American art, Lewis is an artist, educator, and author. A longtime professor, she literally created space for African American art establishing a museum, founding galleries, starting an arts journal, and writing books. The lifetime achievement award “celebrates an artist who has demonstrated particular commitment to their work throughout a long career with national and international impact.” CAA said Los Angeles-based Lewis embodies the criteria.

A Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art went to Willis. CAA said her life’s work as an artist, author, and curator has “opened the field of African American photography” and she has in effect “acted as its archaeologist, sifting through the layers from the time of Louis Daguerre to the surface of our present, retrieving the images and researching their histories.”

Fleetwood, a professor of American studies and art history at Rutgers University, was recognized in two categories for “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” published by Harvard University Press in 2020. She received both the Frank Jewett Mather Award and Charles Rufus Morey Book Award for the exhibition catalog, which accompanied the show she guest curated at MoMA PS1.

“Marking Time” explores contemporary art by incarcerated artists from an aesthetic standpoint and in a political and cultural context, in terms of meaning and giving the artists a voice, an opportunity to express themselves, and assert their humanity. The volume presents works by artists in U.S. prisons alongside contributions by non-incarcerated artists “concerned with state repression, erasure, and imprisonment.” The moving and insightful volume reflects 10 years of scholarly research, long-overdue insights about the effects of incarceration on countless individuals and communities, as well as the personal impact of incarceration on Fleetwood’s own family.

The jury for the Morey Book Award wrote, “Fleetwood’s timely book provides insights into the lives of those impacted by growing economic and racial injustices in current social conditions, especially in the context of the U.S. judicial system, through a study of carceral aesthetics and artistic praxis.” 

Adding further critical praise, judges for the Mather Award said: “Proposing a model of carceral aesthetics, Fleetwood explores the forms, materialities, temporalities, logics, and economies of art produced under conditions of structural racism and unfreedom. Marking Time overturns aesthetic theories that situate the production and discernment of art as the domain of a mobile, sensory, and ‘free’ body and mind.”


From left, Deborah Willis was recognized for art writing dedicated to African American photography and Charles L. Davis II for his book about race and architecture. | Courtesy CAA

CAA’s 2021 Awards for Distinction include:
    Samella Lewis | Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement

    Los Angeles-based Lewis has been an influential figure in the field of African American for three generations. In addition to being a painter and printmaker, Lewis is an educator, author, and artistic change maker. Her life’s achievements are extensive. She was the first African American to earn a Ph.D., in art history (Ohio State University); mentored by Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White; established The International Review of African American Art in 1975; opened the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles; authored the pivotal volume “African American Art and Artists,” a survey of two centuries of Black art in 1978; and taught at several universities. Lewis is a professor emeritus at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif. She taught at Scripps for 15 years and was the first African American professor to receive tenure. Early in her career, she was on the faculty at Florida A&M University, where she organized the first professional conference for African American artists in 1953. Currently, her work is on view in the exhibition “Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) and Samella Lewis (b1923) – Teacher and Student” at Stella Jones Gallery in New Orleans.

    Deborah Willis | Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art

    An artist, curator, and art historian, Willis is a university professor and chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She is the author of many volumes, including “VanDerZee: Photographer, 1886-1983,” the seminal “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present” (2000) and “Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present” (2009). More recently, “The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship,” was published in January.

    Nicole R. Fleetwood | Frank Jewett Mather Award, Charles Rufus Morey Book Award

    A writer, curator, and professor of American studies and art history at Rutgers University, Nicole R. Fleetwood is the author of the groundbreaking volume “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” The publication was recognized with two CAA awards and accompanies her acclaimed exhibition at MoMA PS1 in New York. The show “reflects her decade-long commitment to the research, analysis, and archiving of the visual art and creative practices of incarcerated artists and art that responds to mass incarceration.” The exhibition is on view through April 4.

    Charles L. Davis II | Charles Rufus Morey Book Award

    An assistant professor of architectural history and criticism at the University at Buffalo, Davis is the author of “Building Character: The Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style” published by the University of Pittsburgh Press (2019). The book explores race, the built environment, and the rise of modern architecture, focusing on five architects—Eugéne Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Gottfried Semper, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and William Lescaze. “The work is a reflection on racial justice in the United States and the colonial and racialized legacies of our institutions of learning and art and architectural practice,” the CAA jury said. “One of the real strengths of the book is the way it models, and not only performs, new research at the intersection of race history and architectural history. Beautifully written and cogently argued, it is attentive to well-known material but replete with original insights, and it significantly enriches the story of modern American architecture.”

    Maren Hassinger | Artist Award for a Distinguished Body of Work

    New York-based Hassinger began her career more than 40 years ago in Los Angeles, where her collaborators included Senga Nengudi and David Hammons. She works across sculpture, installation, video, and performance, using a variety of materials (paint, fabric, rope, balloons, newspaper) and methods (welding, stacking, weaving, movement) to explore the human condition. Hassinger has said, “My career has been an attempt to speak honestly about our world, our shared histories. More and more, I have been drawn to the way we treat each other and the world we have created together. While my work is being made in this very real season of change it persists in finding value. It speaks of equality and hurricanes and tyrants yet I believe in the power of the previously disenfranchised and the possibility for accumulative joy of recovery.” Her exhibition, “Maren Hassinger: Nature, Sweet Nature,” is on view at the Aspen Art Museum through March 14.

    Simone Leigh | Distinguished Feminist Award—Artist

    CAA is recognizing Leigh for advancing the cause of equality for women in the arts. Expressing herself primarily through sculpture, she also works in installation, performance, and video. Her practice focuses on Black female subjectivity and “explores and elevates ideas about history, race, gender, labor, and monuments, creating and reclaiming powerful narratives of Black women.” Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Leigh had made great strides in the past few years. She is representing the United States at 59th Venice Biennale in 2022 and will be the first Black female artist to stage a solo exhibition in the American Pavilion. In 2017, Leigh won the Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize from the Studio Museum in Harlem. A year later, she was the first Black artist to win the Hugh Boss Prize (2018) from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Leigh was also the first artist selected for the High Line Plinth, where she installed her monumental “Brick House” sculpture, which remains on view through spring 2021.


In addition, Sampada Aranke won the Art Journal award for “Blackouts and Other Visual Escapes,” which appeared in the Winter 2020 edition of the CAA publication. “The author offers an eloquent inquiry into the aesthetics of Blackness that troubles the racialized politics of visibility and advances an ethical theory of reception,” the jury said. “Through close analyses of artworks by Jack Whitten, Melvin Edwards, and Kerry James Marshall, Aranke proposes that visual representations verging on abstraction and illegibility catalyze embodied modes of relating to Black histories and experiences.”

Aranke is an assistant professor in the Art History, Theory, Criticism Department at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago. Her essay was unanimously selected as the “most distinguished” contribution to Art Journal in 2020. CT


TOP IMAGES: From left, Nicole R. Fleetwood was celebrated for her book about art by incarcerated artists and Samella Lewis for lifetime achievement. | Photos by Bayeté Ross Smith and Courtesy CAA


FIND MORE Meme Omogbai, the new executive director and CEO of CAA, discusses the organization’s focus and priorities with Melissa Potter, vice president for CAA’s the Annual Conference and Programs

FIND MORE Cornell University Art Historian Salah M. Hassan was the Distinguished Scholar at CAA’s 2021 annual conference


From left, Maren Hassinger was honored for her entire body of work and Simone Leigh received the feminist award. | Photos by Ava Hassinger, Paul Mpagi Sepuya


The College Art Association’s annual Awards of Distinction recognized books by Nicole R. Fleetwood (“Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”) and Charles L. Davis II (“Building Character: The Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style”). Samella Lewis has authored several volumes about African American art in general and individual artists, including Elizabeth Catlett and Richmond Barthé. Deborah Willis is the author of many books, including the recently published “The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship.” Simone Leigh contributed to “Fired Up! Ready to Go!: Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz.” The late collector was an early supporter of the artist’s work. A publication documenting Leigh’s exhibition in the American Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale is forthcoming in 2022.


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