Sarah Elizabeth Lewis

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  • Associate Professor of History of Art and Architecture, and African and African American Studies, Harvard University
  • Founder, Vision and Justice Project
  • Author of Bestseller "The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery"



Public intellectual, scholar and associate professor at Harvard University in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Department of African and African American Studies, Sarah Elizabeth Lewis' research focuses on the intersection of African American and Black Atlantic visual representation, racial justice, and representational democracy in the United States from the nineteenth century through the present. Her scholarship and research have been profiled by outlets including The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and her presentations on race in America are sharp, knowledgeable, and insightful. 

One of the most eloquent speakers on the national conversation on race, Lewis believes the fight to end racial injustice cannot be merely legal or political. It has to involve images and it has to involve culture, because the fight is a struggle for visibility. A popular and in-demand speaker, her talks at the nexus of art, race, and justice leave audiences not only inspired, but rejuvenated and hopeful. A frequent speaker at universities and conferences, her mainstage TED talk, Embrace the Near Win, has received over 2.9 million views. 

Her award-winning “Vision & Justice” issue of Aperture magazine received the 2017 Infinity Award for Critical Writing and Research from the International Center of Photography and launched the larger Vision and Justice Project, based on the topic of her core curriculum course at Harvard University, filled with compelling inquiry and a sense of timeliness. Lewis says that the point of her course, Vision & Justice magazines, and the talk is to answer the following questions: How is representational democracy tied up with visual representation, but the image? How can our culture shift the narratives we have about who counts and who belongs in society?

Lewis is also the bestselling author of The Rise, a fascinating examination of how our most iconic creative endeavors—from innovation to the arts—are not achievements but conversions, corrections after failed attempts. Translated into six languages, the book is a successful lesson on creativity, innovation, and discovery. 

 

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Rave Reviews About Sarah Elizabeth Lewis
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.

Keynote - Sarah Elizabeth Lewis on Creativity & Social Justice | SXSWedu [31:33] - Get Sharable Link
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The Rise

The gift of failure is a riddle: it will always be both the void and the start of infinite possibility. Part investigation into a psychological mystery, part an argument about creativity and art, and part a soulful celebration of the determination and courage of the human spirit, Sarah Lewis makes t ...

The gift of failure is a riddle: it will always be both the void and the start of infinite possibility. Part investigation into a psychological mystery, part an argument about creativity and art, and part a soulful celebration of the determination and courage of the human spirit, Sarah Lewis makes the case that many of the world’s greatest achievements have come from understanding the central importance of failure.

Vision & Justice

The Vision & Justice Project wrestles with the question of how the foundational right of representation in a democracy, the right to be recognized justly, has historically and is still urgently tied to the work of visual representation in the public realm.  ...

The Vision & Justice Project wrestles with the question of how the foundational right of representation in a democracy, the right to be recognized justly, has historically and is still urgently tied to the work of visual representation in the public realm. 

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Biography

Sarah Elizabeth Lewis is an associate professor at Harvard University in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Department of African and African American Studies. Her research focuses on the intersection of African American and Black Atlantic visual representation, racial justice, and representational democracy in the United States from the nineteenth century through the present. 

Her award-winning “Vision & Justice” issue of Aperture magazine received the 2017 Infinity Award for Critical Writing and Research from the International Center of Photography and launched the larger Vision and Justice Project, based on the topic of her core curriculum course at Harvard University. 

In 2019, she became 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.” In 2021, Lewis was the recipient of the Frieze New York tribute for her Vision & Justice Project.

Lewis received the 2022 American Philosophical Association's Arthur Danto/American Society for Aesthetics Prize for the paper, "Groundwork: Race and Aesthetics in the Era of Stand Your Ground Law," published in Art Journal, which outlines much of her forthcoming book, Groundwork. The prize is awarded for "the best paper in the field of aesthetics, broadly understood."

Her forthcoming publications include Caucasian War: How Race Changed Sight in America (Harvard University Press, 2022), The Vision and Justice Project (One World/Random House), and a manuscript focusing on the “groundwork” of contemporary arts in the context of Stand Your Ground Laws. Lewis is the editor, with Christine Garnier, of an anthology on the work of Carrie Mae Weems (MIT Press, 2021), which has won one of the 4 inaugural Photography Network book prizes, and the author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (Simon & Schuster, 2014), a fascinating examination of how our most iconic creative endeavors—from innovation to the arts—are not achievements but conversions, corrections after failed attempts. Translated into six languages, the book is a successful lesson on creativity, innovation, and discovery. 

Her essays on race, contemporary art and culture have been published in many journals as well as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artforum, Art Journal, Art in America, Law & Literature, and for the Smithsonian, The Museum of Modern Art, and Rizzoli. Her scholarly views also feature prominently in the upcoming HBO documentary, Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches.

Her research has received support from the Ford Foundation, the Hutchins Center at Harvard University, the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, the Whiting Foundation, and the Lambent Foundation. 

Before joining the faculty at Harvard, she held curatorial positions at The Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Tate Modern, London. She also served as a Critic at Yale University School of Art. She has served on the boards of the Andy Warhol Foundation of the Visual Arts, The Brearley School, and The CUNY Graduate Center and is a current board member of Creative Time, Thames & Hudson Inc., and Harvard Design Press and serves on the Yale University Honorary Degrees Committee. A frequent speaker at universities and conferences, her mainstage TED talk, Embrace the Near Win, has received over 2.9 million views. Her scholarship and research have been profiled by outlets including The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal

She received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, an M. Phil from Oxford University, and her Ph.D. from Yale University. 

She lives in New York and Cambridge, MA.