Art can be evocative and profound. It can speak to larger social movements and provoke change. As the late artist Elizabeth Catlett once wrote in her 1989 book Traditions and Transformations: Contemporary Afro American Sculpture, “Art is only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people.” Catlett was a fervent supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and championed equality for all people. As such, many of her works captured the essence of the indomitable human spirit, adversity, social enlightenment, and cultural pride. From Catlett’s perspective, art was a medium that transcended mere aestheticism. Beyond her creativity and acumen, Catlett utilized art to uplift downtrodden and oppressed people.
As the granddaughter of former slaves and the daughter of educators, Catlett inherited a sense of pride in her African American heritage. Her father, who passed away before she was born, was a mathematics professor at the Tuskegee Institute and her mother worked as a truant officer. Catlett’s grandmother told her stories about suffering as a slave and the perseverance of African Americans in spite of slavery. As such, Catlett was well aware of the plight of African Americans and embraced her racial identity. She also gained an appreciation for the determination of African American woman by observing her mother struggle to support the family.
Even in her own life Catlett experienced discrimination and prejudice firsthand. Catlett wanted to pursue a higher education and applied to the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Unfortunately, she was barred from admission due to her race. In spite of racial discrimination, Catlett was determined to further her education and attended Howard University. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Art and later received a MFA in sculpture from the University of Iowa. During her studies Catlett made African Americans the focal point of her artwork. The onslaught of racism and inequality inspired her to create works that reflected the African American experience.
While Catlett was dedicated to portraying the plight and resiliency of African Americans, she and other artists of her ilk were challenging the status quo in the United States which drew the ire of the American government. At the height of McCarthyism, Communist supporters and sympathizers were blacklisted and/or imprisoned. Catlett’s first husband, Charles White, was a member of the Communist Party so they decided to leave the United States. In addition, Catlett received the Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship which enabled her and White to travel to Mexico City.
As a resident in Mexico, Catlett wanted to preserve her liberty without compromising her artistic integrity. She became active in the Taller de Gráfica Popular workshop which was founded by artists Leopoldo Méndez, Raúl Anguiano, Luis Arenal, and Pablo O’Higgins. This was a community of like-minded artists dedicated to promoting social equality and conveying the authenticity of oppressed and marginalized people. She divorced Charles White and married Mexican artist Francisco Mora. It was also during this time that she created her linoleum cut series titled The Negro Woman.
With this series, Catlett depicted African American women as resilient and endearing human beings. Catlett also crafted an overarching narrative to complement her artistic representations of African American women. As Catlett wrote, “I am the Negro woman. I have always worked hard in America. In the fields. In other folks’ homes. I have given the world my songs. In Sojourner Truth I fought for the rights of women as well as Negroes. In Harriet Tubman I helped hundreds to freedom. In Phillis Wheatley I proved intellectual equality in the midst of slavery. My role has been important in the struggle to organize the unorganized […] My right is a future of equality with other Americans.”
In particular, Catlett wanted to demonstrate the strength of African American women in her works. As an African American woman herself, Catlett knew how difficult it was to endure racial and gender discrimination. As she told the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times in 1992, “I wanted to show the history and strength of all kinds of black women […] Working women, country women, urban women, great women in the history of the United States.”
Her 1952 piece, “Sharecropper” depicts an elderly black woman solemnly gazing into the distance. This woman symbolizes the strength of African Americans to endure even the most difficult circumstances. Following the Civil War, African Americans in the South lived in conditions similar to slavery. African Americans had limited opportunities for work and many of them had to resort to sharecropping to provide for themselves and their families. Although they were technically free, the master-slave dynamic still existed. In this piece, Catlett paid tribute to the anonymous individuals that suffered oppression and indignities in order to survive. While prominent figures such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks are deservedly immortalized in history for their contributions, countless unknown African Americans also bore excruciating burdens to pave the path for future generations.
Catlett’s piece “Homage to the Black Panthers” captures the spirit of radical activism. It features images of members of the Black Panthers as well as two black, clenched fists and an assault rifle. The Black Panthers believed that militancy was necessary to bring about equality for African Americans. Catlett’s piece illustrates the rage and resiliency of African Americans who were fed up with being treated like second-class citizens. While The Black Panthers’ methodology has garnered controversy, their desire for equality was admirable and justifiable. Since Catlett encountered the same struggles as The Black Panthers and other African Americans, she identified with their cause and portrayed their solidarity through art.
Her piece “And a Special Fear For My Loved Ones” depicts the graphic aftermath of the lynching of a black man. The lifeless body of the man lies on the ground while his assailants trample on the severed noose hanging from his neck. Catlett evocatively gives viewers a glimpse into this bleak reality that African Americans have endured for centuries. “And a Special Fear For My Loved Ones” is still, unfortunately, relevant today. The specter of racism looms in American society and in some respects African Americans are still treated and viewed as expendable. This powerful image encapsulates the brutality of racial persecution that’s plagued America since its inception.
Even though Catlett spent the majority of her life in Mexico, she was still concerned for the well-being of African Americans and continued to portray them in her artwork. She went on to become the Professor of Sculpture for the National School of Fine Arts at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Catlett also continued her activism by organizing the Mexican Provisional Committee of Solidarity with Angela Davis, a former member of The Black Panthers. In the 21st century, Catlett was still actively creating art. She created a bronze sculpture in 2003 to honor author Ralph Ellison titled, “Invisible Man: A Memorial to Ralph Ellison” which depicts a clear silhouette of a man within a bronze rectangle.
Elizabeth Catlett was always purposeful when she created art. She wasn’t concerned with recognition or fame; she made artwork to usher in societal equality. Catlett embraced her identity as well as the history of oppression and perseverance shared by all African Americans. Her works are timeless and a testament to people who have endured, combatted, and surmounted societal injustices.