Elizabeth Catlett, 1915-2012
By Eilís Doolan
Throughout her artistic career, which lasted for over 70 years, Elizabeth Catlett’s work continuously celebrated the heroism and endurance of working class women. An artistic activist, Catlett not only used her sculptures and prints to support the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but to advance the causes of African American and Mexican women. Her art is primarily concerned with subjects of racial and gender inequalities, but also touches upon life-affirming themes of motherhood and the human condition.
Born into a comfortable middle-class neighbourhood in Washington D.C., the grandchild of slaves, Catlett devoted her entire career to creating socially conscious art. After completing high school, Catlett was awarded a scholarship to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology—only to have the offer rescinded on the basis of her race. Instead, Catlett enrolled at Howard University’s School of Art, from which she graduated in 1936, and continued her education at the University of Iowa, where she studied sculpture under American Gothic painter Grant Wood. Upon her graduation as the first ever African-American woman to complete the Master of Fine Arts programme, in 1940, Catlett received her first award – the “first honour” in sculpture at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago, for a sculpture which she had completed in 1939, titled Mother and Child.
Catlett’s art confronts the disturbing injustices of racism in America, and is marked by a desire to evoke the dignity and strength of the African American poor. The year following her graduation, after marrying fellow artist Charles White, Catlett accompanied her first husband on a fellowship to the South, where she was directly exposed to the atrocious treatment of African Americans. A year later, the couple returned to New York, where Catlett studied lithography and thus began working with the medium of printmaking. Catlett’s best-known works were completed after her move to Mexico City in 1946, when she received her own Rosenwald Fellowship. In Mexico, Catlett found a new home. There, she learned linoleum cut technique at the renowned El Taller de Gráfica Popular (People’s Graphic Workshop) in Mexico City, an artists’ collective, which was dedicated to continuing the Mexican tradition of socially engaged public art. Catlett was immediately inspired, and painted several murals during this period which show her admiration for the work of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In fact, it was the Mexican muralist’s spirit of activist public art that pushed Catlett to produce her own images of hardship – images which depicted black women in their dignity and beauty. One of her most famous works, Sharecropper (1952), is a heroic portrait of an anonymous black woman. Her lean face is framed by a straw hat, and her blouse fixed by a safety pin. The image evokes the strength of the working poor, by depicting a woman, who is unidentified and ageless, but who is the image of resolve and determination.
Like the Mexican muralists, Catlett’s art became increasingly concerned with advancing political causes through pictorial statements. Her prints continued to focus on the multidimensional roles of women as mothers, workers, and activists, and linoleum cut was the perfect medium – it was inexpensive and democratic, as it could be easily distributed to a wide range of audiences. Her work from the 1960s and 70s successfully combines artistic influences ranging from cubism to expressionism. Roots (1981) depicts a young African American woman in profile. Her neck and hair are completely blacked out, while her face is modelled by carefully contrasted lines. As in Sharecropper, this woman is the image of dignity. She looks ahead, as the corners of her mouth seem just about to turn up into a smile. The figure is presented against a colourful backdrop, reminiscent of both traditional African Kente cloths and pre-Columbian patterns. Another famous piece is a linoleum cut titled Malcom X Speaks For Us (1969), a print completed after Malcom X’s assassination, which celebrates his efforts to inspire pride in African American women.
Catlett’s commitment to social issues led the US State Department to bar her from re-entering the US for nearly a decade. In 1962, Catlett became a Mexican citizen, and the US government labelled her an “undesirable alien.” As such, her art was seldom seen in the land of her birth. In the past 25 years, however, Catlett’s works have been exhibited worldwide and have entered major museums. Reflecting upon her art, Catlett said in 1978: “I have always wanted my art to service black people – to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.” On April 2nd, 2012, Catlett died at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, at the age of 96.
“Elizabeth Catlett, Mother and Child 1956.” The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed 9April 2019. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/88189.
“Elizabeth Catlett, Sharecropper 1952.” The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed 13 April 2019. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/88189.
“Elizabeth Catlett.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed 12 April 2019. https://americanart.si.edu/artist/elizabeth-catlett-781.
Harrison, Jeff. “The Sculpture of Elizabeth Catlett.” Chrysler Museum of Art. Accessed 13 April 2019. http://elizabethcatlett.net.
Lewis, Samella. “The Art of Elizabeth Catlett.” Museum of the African Diaspora. Accessed 13 April 2019. https://www.moadsf.org/exhibition/art-elizabeth-catlett-selections-collection-samella-lewis/.