Elizabeth Catlett, grandchild of freed slaves, was a Modernist artist, who worked with sculpture and printmaking. She explored themes of race, gender, and class, portraying not only injustices of slavery and discrimination but also showing strategies of empowerment. She used her art to advocate for social change for nearly 75 years. Influenced by African and Mexican artistic traditions, she focused on an ‘Afrofemcentrist’ point of view in her sculptures and prints of African American women.
Catlett was accepted to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) but was refused entry because she was black. So she did her undergraduate work at Howard University where she received her B.A. degree, having studied under renowned artist Lois Mailou Jones. Catlett was the first African American woman to earn her M.F.A. degree in sculpture from the University of Iowa in 1940 where she studied under the artist Grant Wood.
She and African American artist Charles White attended an integrated camp in New Jersey, which championed the rights of working people. The two of them traveled through the South and were married for five years. After Catlett moved to Mexico City, she divorced White. In 1946 she accepted an invitation to work in Taller de Grafica Popular, a printmaking collective, which focused on social issues. A year later she held her first major show at the collective, “I am a Negro Woman,” a series of sculptures, prints, and painting.
In 1947, she married the Mexican muralist and printmaker Francisco Mora. They had three children and resided in Cuernavaca, Mexico. In 1962, she relinquished her American citizenship and had to apply for a special visa in order to cross into the United States.
Her 1968 lithograph “Negro es Bello (Black is Beautiful”) is a powerful portrayal of a young black child whose prominent features make him beautiful. Catlett created prints about Harriet Tubman and other black women in the 1940s though the 1970s. Her 1975 linoleum block print “Harriet” shows a strong woman pointing the way to freedom. She portrayed Harriet and other black women as warrior women, showing them as having made incredible contributions both during and after slavery.
Her 1968 sculpture, “Black Unity,” showed a raised fist sculpted out of cedar, which evoked the Black Power movement’s enduring symbol. Catlett also made semi-abstract sculptures of the female figure in bronze, marble, and wood. One bronze work “Torso” from the 1980s and a green marble torso from 2008 twist with energy and assertiveness. Her 2010 “Mahalia Jackson, New Orleans” depicts the gospel singer with her arms and eyes raised and her skirt billowing around her legs.
In 1993, New York’s Metropolitan Museum acquired for its permanent collection her mahogany wood sculpture, “Woman Fixing Her Hair.” It shows a strong black woman seated, with her feet firmly planted on the ground, lifting her arms and hands to fix her hair. The figure in her lithograph “Black Girl” 2004 is less abstract than Catlett’s sculpture pieces. She has sharp furrows on her face, and her hair is natural. She has a commanding presence and is a person who is to be taken seriously.
Catlett’s work is in the permanent collections of museums throughout the world. Some of these are Cleveland Museum of Art; Howard University in Washington D.C.; Institute of Fine Arts, Mexico; Library of Congress, Washington D.C.; Mississippi Museum of Art; Museums of Modern Art in New York and Mexico; and the National Museum of American Art, Washington D.C.