The Life and Memory of Elizabeth Catlett

Against the Current, No. 160, September/October 2012

Kelli Morgan

IN JANUARY 2011 The Bronx Museum presented “Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation with 21 Contemporary Artists” to explore what art historian Isolde Brielmaier describes as the “beauty, aesthetic excellence, conceptual strength, and inventive stance of Catlett’s work throughout time.”

This exhibition was one of the more recent celebrations of Catlett’s fascinating oeuvre and long-standing career.  For 70 years Elizabeth Catlett’s elegant sculpture and energetic print work penetrated and transformed the American art world, illustrating art’s crucial function as a catalyst for social and political change.

On April 2, 2012 Elizabeth Catlett passed away in her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, the end of a magnificent life dedicated to imaging the history and culture of African-American and Mexican peoples.

Born in Washington D.C. on April 15, 1915, Alice Elizabeth Catlett’s talents were cultivated in an environment that valued education.  Her parents, John Catlett and Mary Carson Catlett, were teachers employed in the D.C. public school system. John Catlett was a former professor at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and Mary Catlett worked as a truant officer. From her mother’s teachings and social work in urban D.C., Elizabeth Catlett began to form the lens through which she identified herself as a woman, activist and artist.

At a time when segregation and racial violence were pervasive throughout the South, opportunities for Black women to study and become professional artists were scarce. However, because her mother was such an avid supporter of her daughter’s love for art, Catlett began developing her artistic acumen at Dunbar High School.

She graduated in 1931 and went on to receive a Bachelor of Science in Art from Howard University in 1935. As an undergraduate, Catlett studied design, drawing and printmaking with Lois Mailou Jones, James Lesesne Wells and James Porter, some of the premier Black artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

Between high school graduation and her undergraduate studies at Howard, Catlett experienced the effects of American racism when she was denied entrance to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, now Carnegie Mellon University, because she was African American. This rejection connected Catlett to the myriad discriminatory experiences of Black women that her mother often recounted.

Black Mother and Child

It is from such adversity that Catlett primarily centered her artistic career upon the plights of Black women. Throughout her career her artwork exemplified the lives of Black women, honoring their capacity to overcome the harsh, oppressive circumstances in which they lived.

Upon graduating from Howard, Catlett followed in her parents’ footsteps, becoming a public school teacher in Durham, North Carolina. After teaching there for two years, she entered graduate school at the University of Iowa, studying under the renowned American painter Grant Wood, who advised her to create work from subject matter with which she was most familiar.

From this guidance Catlett created her master’s thesis, Negro Mother and Child (1940), a sculpture that served as a precursor to the major themes of Black women’s love, beauty, strength and resistance that would emanate from her artwork for the next 70 years. In that work she uses the Black mother and child to portray the love within a maternal bond, showing a young child quietly nestled in the loving, protective arms of his mother.

Catlett’s representation of the Black mother and child debunked the popular American belief that Black mothers were efficient mammies, yet lacked maternal instincts in regards to their own children.

Catlett shared very intimate relationships with her mother and maternal grandmother, who both contributed significant influence on her understanding and interpretations of Black women and maternity. These relationships were the initial motivations for Catlett’s artistic portrayals of Black mothers with their children. Later, when Catlett became a mother herself, she claimed how her children and the bond she shared with them was never an aspect that was divorced from her artistry.

As she matured in her own maternity, her artwork flourished in form, theme and style. Negro Mother and Child was awarded first prize in sculpture when exhibited in the 1940 Chicago American Negro Exposition. It was also included as an exemplary work of African-American Art in Alain Locke’s The Negro in Art and James Porter’s Modern Negro Art.

Black Chicago and Marxism

Elizabeth Catlett became one of the first people to receive a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa, and with it she continued her dedication to educating students in art. She became the chair of the Art Department at Dillard University from 1940 to 1942, where she taught printmaking, drawing, art history and painting.

In the summer of 1941 Catlett worked and studied at the Southside Community Center in Chicago. Here she became fully acquainted with the visual and literary artists of the Black Chicago Renaissance.
She worked and studied alongside Margaret Burroughs, Eldzier Cortor, Charles White (whom she later married and divorced), Margaret Walker (who was her roommate while she studied at the University Iowa and her lifelong friend) and several others, becoming fully immersed in the tenets of Social Realist Art, Socialism and Communism.

The Chicago artists were greatly influenced by Marxism, and the role of the Black worker in American society was crucial to their work. They were committed to the belief that art should provide a tangible function for the African-American community. Some were dedicated social realists, while others used modernist aesthetics to create art that communicated universal ideas through Black experiences.

Many of these artists were members of the Communist Party, believing that Communism as an ideological and political tool offered the best solution to both racial discrimination and class subordination. They utilized Black Chicago in their art as a metaphor to help explain broader issues of social, political, and cultural oppression.

From Chicago she went on to New York to study abstraction with modernist sculptor Ossip Zadkine, and from 1944 to 1946 she taught working and lower class Blacks at the George Washington Carver School. Working with students in New York broadened Catlett’s awareness of the Black experience in America. For Catlett, these students reiterated her mother’s experiences as a social worker.

From the time she entered college, social and political activism became an essential aspect of Catlett’s personal and professional life. She participated in anti-fascist and antiwar activities at Howard University, and in protests demanding higher wages for schoolteachers while working in Durham. She challenged segregation in New Orleans by supporting a group of Dillard students, arrested for removing the “For Colored Only” signs on a city bus; and by taking her students to a Picasso exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art that was located in an area inadmissible to African Americans.

These activities served as the fulcrum upon which her Marxist and socialist ideals operated.  Her work in social realism with the artists of the Black Chicago Renaissance reinforced these ideals, but it was her work at the Carver School, a Popular Front school led by the Communist Party, that brought her social and political activism to artistic realization.

At the Carver School Catlett worked primarily with Black women, teaching them artistic practices from a Marxist perspective.  In 1991 Catlett told her biographer, art historian Melanie Anne Herzog, that these sessions “gave [her] a basis for what [she] wanted to do” as an artist.

Prior to working with these women, Catlett had not identified herself with the working and poor classes of African Americans, despite the substantial influence of her mother on her development as an artist.  Yet after teaching and learning from these women, Catlett’s dedication to accurate artistic representations of lower class Black women solidified, which is vividly displayed in her next major piece, The Negro Woman (1946-47).

In 1946 a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald fund allowed Catlett to travel to Mexico, where she established herself as a permanent resident in 1947. In Mexico she began her acclaimed graphic work at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, met her second husband Francisco Mora, who preceded her in death in 2002, and gave birth to her three sons Francisco, Juan and David Mora.

Escaping McCarthyism

Familiar with Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros’ influences on American art, Catlett was eager to work with the socially active artists at the Taller. Her activities here made her a target of the vicious postwar, anti-Communist political environment that buttressed the Cold War and McCarthyism. She experienced aggressive political scrutiny by the U.S. government through the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the U.S. embassy in Mexico throughout the 1950s, which forced her to become a Mexican citizen in 1962.

She quickly incorporated what she learned while working with Black Chicago Renaissance artists with the Taller artists’ commitment to making art for the people into her series, The Negro Woman. In this series Catlett engages social realism to render images of the plight of Black women, who represent the Black working class. From an African-American, feminist perspective, Catlett’s images serve as reconstructed American history that function as cultural memory for an international audience.

Over the next 70 years, Catlett cultivated her dedication to Black peoples through continued political activism, and became an iconic figure during the Black Arts and Black Power movements. She continued her commitment to education, becoming the first female professor of sculpture in the National Fine Arts School at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, later serving as chair of the Sculpture Department.

As her prominence and fame as an American artist increased from the 1970s through the 1990s, many mainstream institutions, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Detroit Institute of Arts, acquired her works. By the late 20th century she was well known as a preeminent African-American artist.

Elizabeth Catlett used the Black female form, as a site of both personal identity and artistic creativity, to transcend racial discrimination, gender subordination and national boundaries. It exemplified her experiences as a Black woman, an activist and a mother, themes that were central to her work and through which she connected herself to both African-American and Mexican peoples. She utilized representations of Black women to affirm all people of color, and to present scenes that global audiences can identify within their own communities and memories for a long time to come.

September/October 2012, ATC 160