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Sarah Lewis

What is the role of art and culture for racial justice?

Guest-Editor of Aperture’s “Vision & Justice” Issue | Author of The Rise | Associate Professor At Harvard

Contact Sarah For Booking
Sarah Lewis | Guest-Editor of Aperture’s “Vision & Justice” Issue | Author of The Rise | Associate Professor At Harvard
Lavin Exclusive Speaker

SARAH LEWIS is among the most insightful and eloquent speakers on race in America, one of only two professors ever hired at Harvard to focus on African-American art. In spellbinding talks, she probes questions so fundamental to our cultural consciousness that to consider them at all is to be profoundly re-oriented, instantly understanding culture not as a benign reflection of society, but rather something created; something we are in control of—and images, she argues, are our most powerful tool. 

“One cannot consider the present-day field of African American art history without mention of Sarah Lewis.”

— Artnet

“Every two minutes we create as many images as were created in the entire 19th century,” Lewis says, and “we’re reading images as much as we’re seeing them … there is a language and a syntax and a grammar to them.” And though all of us, digital natives especially, are voracious readers, how literate are we? Sociologists tell us that less and less we’re engaging with those who are different from us, curating our own visual content which affirms our existing biases and beliefs. And this, says Lewis, distorts our notions of “who belongs, who counts, and what humanity looks like.”

 

Lewis’ talks urgently address the world we are living in right now, gathering in various threads—art history, technical innovation, race, photography, the story of America, and her own deeply personal narrative—to elucidate the power of art to ignite transformative social change. And it’s this combination of urgency, hope, and clear, compelling analysis which keep Lewis’ lecture halls packed; the reason her award-winning “Vision and Justice” issue of Aperture magazine (now in its fourth printing) and forthcoming book (Random House) have garnered unprecedented press coverage and changed the national conversation on race. “She’s found the visual analog for Black Lives Matter,” celebrated professor and literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. tells The Boston Globe. “No one has done that before.”

 

Lewis is also the bestselling author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (Simon & Schuster, 2014), a story-driven investigation into the biography of an idea—a big idea—that no current term yet captures. It’s about creative human endeavor, and how innovation, mastery, and new concepts are found in unlikely places. Kirkus Reviews writes of The Rise: "Creativity, like genius, is inexplicable, but Lewis’ synthesis of history, biography and psychological research offers a thoughtful response to the question of how new ideas happen." The work has been translated into six languages to date. 

 

Lewis has spoken to top-tier organizations from Prada to ABC to United Way. Her mainstage TED talk received over 2.8 million views and she was a closing speaker at SXSW. Recently, Lewis was prominently featured in HBO’s Black Art: In the Absence of Light, a “rich and absorbing” documentary exploring two centuries of art by African-Americans, and the path they forged for contemporary Black artists. Lewis’ scholarship has also been profiled by The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe, to name a few. She was on Oprah’s “Power List,” served on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, and in 2019, she was the inaugural recipient of the Freedom Scholar Award, presented by The Association for the Study of African American Life and History. The award honors Lewis for her body of work and its “direct positive impact on the life of African-Americans.”

 

An associate professor at Harvard University in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Department of African and African American Studies, Lewis’ research focuses on the intersection of African American and Black Atlantic visual representation, racial justice, and representational democracy in the United States. Her forthcoming publications include, among others, Vision and Justice (Random House), and an anthology on the work of Carrie Mae Weems (MIT Press, 2021) which received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, who described it as “thoughtful, thorough, and timely.”

Testimonials

“Sarah’s keynote was the perfect affirmation of support for the arts and so much more…the generosity and grace of her work set a tone that was present throughout the convening, and we heard so much gratitude from everyone who saw her presentation—including the hotel staff and AV technicians! It meant a lot to the artists in the room to have someone like Sarah there and her perspective on culture broadly, really nurtured the camaraderie built among the artist cohort.”

The USA Team
Testimonials

“I don’t think it is possible to overstate the impact your presence had on our students and faculty. People were inspired, moved, and affirmed by you. Your work is incredible and your presence and warmth are equally compelling. Thank you for making the trip, for sharing with such genuine enthusiasm, and for continuing to engage the students who follow up with you.”

The Brearley School
Testimonials

“As I opened the Global PR Summit feedback survey today, I realized that you and Ketchum deserve kudos directly from everyone who attended for bringing in Sarah Lewis. I had heard that she speaks even more eloquently than her book reads, but didn’t believe it until seeing her in action. I’m re-reading The Rise this week, thanks to Ketchum’s sponsorship.”

Holmes PR Summit
Testimonials

“You were the perfect balance—great stories, so joyful, lots of insights that helped our audience. I hope you could sense that everyone is leaving thinking about things differently, and are, most importantly happy.”

LSAC
Testimonials

“Sarah’s presence and her words were deeply inspiring and so relevant to the educators at our event. She made a tremendous impact. We were so pleased. And thank you for all of your assistance in the process. You were so integral to the evening’s success.”

North Carolina Museum of Art
Testimonials

“You have no idea how many people came up to me Saturday afternoon who were transformed by your presentation. Thank you so very much for joining us and for having the courage to participate! You were vital to making sense of that whole topic. Thank you!”

Kennedy Center

Speech Topics

Race
Vision & Justice Race, Citizenship, and America

Can art today bring about the catalytic social change that it has in the past? What is the role of the artist in shifting our perceptions, shattering biases, and creating the world we want? More than ever, we are inundated with images. Awash in them. Yet the artist alone has the power—through one iconic image, one profound gesture—to help focus our attention on what truly matters. In a bold new talk, Sarah Lewis makes a lucid and original case for art as a lever to social justice and cultural transformation. “The endeavor to affirm the dignity of human life cannot be waged without pictures,” she has written. “To be an engaged global citizen right now requires visual literacy.”

 

Gathering in various threads—art history, technical innovation, race, photography, the story of America, and a deeply personal narrative—Lewis takes us to a place of deeper contemplation and understanding. She celebrates individual artists, invokes the collective imagination, and helps us see afresh both what is there, right in front of us, as well as what could be.

Creativity
The Rise Creativity and the Search for Mastery
Where do new innovations—new ideas—spring from? It’s an enduring enigma, but, in this exquisite talk, Sarah Lewis offers a new understanding of what enables creative endeavors. What really drives iconic, transformational change on both a personal and an organizational level? From Nobel Prize–winning discoveries to new inventions to works of art, many of our creative triumphs are not achievements, but conversions. Drawing on figures such as Frederick Douglass, Angela Duckworth, J. K. Rowling, and others, Lewis reveals the importance of play, grit, surrender, often ignored ideas, and the necessary experiments and follow-up attempts that lead to true breakthroughs. Smart, uplifting, and counterintuitive, this keynote will help change the way you think about creativity, innovation, and mastery: the path to success, Lewis notes, is often more surprising than we expect. 
Politics & Society
The Power of Images During a Pandemic
What are we missing by not having images that represent the full impact of the coronavirus crisis? In this powerful talk, Sarah Lewis speaks of the need to show photographs—unfiltered images from medical zones—that help us visualize the extent of this historic moment. These photos might move us to action. But they’re nowhere to be found. Without them, the virus is harder to contemplate and, ultimately, to combat. During the pandemic, we have seen photos of the President, of shuttered storefronts and empty highways, of frontline workers and lonely bike couriers. We have seen graphs and pie charts conveying important statistics. But, as Lewis reminds us, “Statistics alone, however clear, are not historically how we have communicated calamity on this scale.” Drawing on photos from the Civil War, to the Great Depression, to the fight for clean water in Flint, Michigan, to the present-day crisis, Lewis encourages audiences to start a conversation about the emblematic pictures we need to see, but are not seeing. A masterclass on the potential and limits of how and when images create empathy, this talk shows, definitively, that visualization is a powerful tool—it can help us more deeply understand the severity of this, and any, situation.
Marketing
Visual Literacy for Marketers Everything You Need to Know About Working with Images in Our Politically Fraught Moment

Suddenly, and quite publicly, visual literacy has become a hotly-discussed topic in marketing. Carelessly borrowing imagery from the wider culture risks accusations of being tone-deaf, out of touch. The examples pile up daily. If you produce anything visual—photography, video, social media, corporate identities—there is a new challenge. How do you create iconic images while sidestepping controversy? How do you ensure your work is not called-out for a lapse in judgement, but rather for positive associations?

 

To Harvard historian and art curator Sarah Lewis, our turbulent political moment requires “an advanced state of visual literacy.” Companies now require the ability to decode symbols and navigate the complexity of contemporary politics with savvy and empathy. Showing that you are engaged with the world, she writes, “requires grappling with pictures, and knowing their historical context with, at times, near art-historical precision.” In this sweeping talk, based on her award-winning work around “Vision and Justice,” Lewis discusses how even the casual consumer is now an expert critic: an engaged citizen who knows how to parse authenticity. Lewis answers the central questions brands must grapple with to pierce our media-saturated culture and reach audiences in a genuine way. How do we celebrate, rather than steal or appropriate, the work of artistic creators? How can we invoke the past with reverence and respect? And how might we imbue our calls to action with a sense of real gravity? With Lewis, audiences learn how to truly read, appreciate, and intelligently disseminate images—images that are arresting, convincing, persuasive, but also moral and just. This is an eye-opening, deeply moving, and wholly pragmatic look into the true force that images can play in our culture.