Elizabeth Catlett is the Rosa Parks of American sculpture and printmaking. We already know that the art world was not welcoming to African American women in the mid 1900s, as we learned through the HERstory of Augusta Fells Savage. Yet we are proud to announce that Elizabeth’s life story is one of accomplishment, overcoming, and progress. In fact, her creative vision and political influence are still at work today. She is alive and kicking, and at the age of 94 she still creates arresting visual art. She heads an impressive lineage of talented individuals: her sons are jazz musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists and she is grandmother to Next Top Model’s Cycle 4 winner, Naima Mora. With a matriarch like Elizabeth in the family, who wouldn’t make a splash?
Some say only the good die young, but they’ve obviously never met Elizabeth Catlett. In fact, Elizabeth only became more influential with age. As her technique grew more refined, her theories more developed, and her audience more receptive, Elizabeth’s portrayals of defiant African American women spoke to a pivotal moment in American history. She believed and still believes that the world has much to learn from black women, which is why we present her to you in this week’s revival of the art HERstory workshop.
In 1915, Alice Elizabeth Catlett was born in Washington D.C, where she was raised by her widowed mother and ex-slave grandparents. In lieu of traditional bedtime stories, Elizabeth listened to accounts of her great, great grandmother being kidnapped from Madagascar and forced overseas into American slavery. Later this woman’s daughter was sold off, but the young girl refused to eat until she was reunited with her mother. As the generations passed, both Elizabeth’s maternal grandparents and her paternal grandmother were born into slavery. Elizabeth grew up looking into the eyes of these defiant survivors, infusing her identity with African American pride and a passion for justice.
Before Catlett learned to channel her spirit of protest into visual language, she took hasty measures to stand against oppression. She recalls,
“When I was in high school I was always very radical. . . . I remember in high school, standing in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington with a noose around my neck, protesting lynching. I don’t remember what group it was, all I remember was that the police took us away.”
Catlett had known from a young age that she wanted to be an artist, although she had few African American artists to look toward. While working on her painting degree in the 1930s at D.C.’s Howard University, Elizabeth was active in student anti fascist and anti war clubs. She then moved on to State University of Iowa, where she became the first student to graduate with a Master of Fine Arts. As an art student, no one explained to Elizabeth how to combat racism and injustice through celebratory images of defiant, proud, conquering black women. Elizabeth painted, printed, and sculpted what was inside of her: and that was all it took. She devoted herself to creating art accessible to all. The simplicity, clarity, and urgency of her work call attention to fundamental issues of inequality and injustice in our world.
Inspired by the Mexican public art movement and mural painters, she traveled to Mexico in 1946 for a fellowship at the Taller de Grafica Popular. She fell in love with the collaborative force at work in this print studio, and she also fell in love with one of its members: Francisco Mora. The activist spirit and colorblind mentality of her Mexican peers drew Elizabeth in, while the increasing political tension of the U.S. cold war and ensuing McCarthyism alienated Catlett from her homeland.
Elizabeth settled in Mexico with the love of her life, Francisco, where she built a family and career for herself. Although physically removed from her original African American community, Elizabeth’s cultural identity only became deeper rooted while abroad. Without the constraints of racism and misogyny, Elizabeth flourished as a printmaker, sculptor, teacher and mother in Mexico City. At the National Autonomous University of Mexico, she guided students toward mastering artistic techniques necessary to tell their own story through art. Meanwhile she raised three boys, managed a household, and still had fire left over at the end of the day to produce skilled and politically charged artwork. Either Mexican coffee is far superior to what we’re used to, or Elizabeth is an unstoppable creative force. For the sake of HERstory, we’ll go with the latter.
The more Catlett stepped into her own, the more North America grew suspicious: in 1962 she was barred from her homeland due to past political associations. Yet blacklisting Elizabeth was not enough to squelch the influence of her iconic prints and sculptures, especially during the rise of the Black Arts and Black Power movements of the 60s.
When Elizabeth was allowed entrance into the US once again in 1971, she returned to visit a different country than the one she had left 30 years before. Even from afar, Catlett’s message of unity, non-violence, equality, and peace had inspired change in America.
I imagine Elizabeth Catlett to be an old soul: calm, expressive, loving, tender, and passionate. Her life work is a major contribution to the advances of justice in our country within the last century. She believed in peace, which she translated with her hands into powerful print imagery and organic, beautiful, tactile sculptures.
Elizabeth currently lives in Cuernavaca, Mexico where she works in her art studio every day. She has lived to see her work exhibited in institutions such as the Neuberger Museum of Art, Delta Arts Center, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Catlett has also received the Women’s Caucus For Art award and an honorary Doctorate from Pace University; and just this year she was invited to speak at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
I leave you today with a final word from Elizabeth herself:
“Women have been cast in the role of mothers and homemakers, and we are real good at it. Black women have been cast in the role of carrying on the survival of black people through their position as mothers and wives, protection and educating and stimulating children and black men. We can learn from black women. They have had to struggle for centuries. I feel that we have so much more to express and that we should demand to be heard and demand to be seen because we know and feel and can express so much, contribute so much aesthetically.”
Photo Credit: © Elizabeth Catlett/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Reproduction of this image is prohibited without written authorization from VAGA (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Quotes and facts cited from Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico by Melanie Anne Herzog, 2000.
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