Lionel Davis was born and raised in District 6, Cape Town. He became politically involved as a young man and was sentenced to seven years imprisonment on Robben Island for conspiracy to commit sabotage against the apartheid regime in 1963. This was followed by five years of house arrest.
Starting in 1977, he studied art at the Community Arts Project (CAP), at Rorke’s Drift (1980-2) and at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Art where he obtained a B.A. (Fine Art) in 1995.
During the 1980’s, he worked in CAP’s screen-printing section printing anti-apartheid posters, T-shirts and protest banners and trained community groups in the skills required to produce these.
From 1997 to 2007, he worked for the Robben Island Museum as a prison guide and an educator. Davis is a founding member of Thupelo and was a trustee of the Greatmore Studios. At present, he divides his time between public speaking and art making.
In 2017, he was honoured with a retrospective exhibition, Awakenings at Cape Town’s IZIKO South African National Gallery. A publication, titled Awakenings, the Art of Lionel Davis was launched alongside this.