“Are we here to communicate? Are we here for cultural interchange? Then let us not be narrow. Let us not be small or selfish. Let us aspire to be as great in our communication as the forefathers of our people whose struggles made our being here possible…”
Those are the bold words of iconic artist, Elizabeth Catlett, in her 1961 keynote address to the Third Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Negro Artists in Washington, DC. One year later, Catlett—who, by that time, had lived in Mexico for more than a decade and spoken out against social injustices in the US—officially became a Mexican citizen, a move prompting the American government to label the activist an “undesirable alien” and deny her entry to the United States. Though barred from her home country for the remainder of the 1960s, Catlett’s provocative work proclaimed solidarity with the Civil Rights and Black Power movements while highlighting the important role of women. In 1971, after being featured in various American media and invited by numerous institutions to exhibit her work domestically, Catlett was finally granted a visa to attend the opening of her solo show at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
While her U.S. citizenship would ultimately be restored in 2002, the sculptor and printmaker didn’t need a passport to know what life as a Black American entailed. Born in Washington, DC in 1915 to a mother who worked as a school truant officer, Catlett never met her father, a math professor at the Tuskegee Institute who had died several months before her birth. As a child, her mother schooled her on the harsh realities of racism and poverty facing the Black community while her grandmothers told her stories of slavery. This exposure would instill an early sense of social justice and awareness in the artistic youth and plant the seeds for her subsequent artistic perspective.
Graduating from Washington’s Dunbar High School in 1931, Catlett attended Howard University where she studied art under such notables figures as James Herring, Lois Mailou Jones, James Wells, and James Porter. Upon graduating with honors, she taught art for two years in Durham, North Carolina where she organized with Thurgood Marshall to promote equal pay for Black teachers. After leaving Durham to attend graduate school in art at the University of Iowa, Catlett was awarded the university’s first Master of Fine Arts in sculpture, and her thesis exhibition, “Negro Mother and Child,” won the First Award in Sculpture at the 1940 American Negro Exposition in Chicago.
In the mid-1940s, after teaching art at Dillard University in New Orleans and marrying prominent artist, Charles White, Catlett traveled to Mexico under a Rosenwald Fellowship to pursue her interest in the murals and graphic art of the country’s post-revolutionary period. Her marriage to White would end and Catlett would relocate to Mexico and join up with a group of international artists that included Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. There, for over a half-century, Catlett taught art, challenged oppression, and produced an extraordinary body of work focused on social justice, Black women’s labor, historical heroines, and racial and gender equity.
Elizabeth Catlett, a recipient of numerous honorary doctorates, honors, and awards, died in 2012 at the age of 96 in her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Her life and work are currently the subject of the group exhibition, “Elizabeth Catlett: Points of Contact,” on display now through Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022 at the SCAD Museum of Art’s Evans Center for African American Studies in Savannah, GA.
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