Elizabeth Catlett (April 15, 1915 – April 2, 2012)

“I have always wanted my art to service my people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”

During a career that spanned more than seventy years, sculptor, painter, printmaker, and visionary artist Elizabeth Catlett created luminous works that celebrated the genius, struggles, and indomitable spirit of black folks. The granddaughter of freed “slaves” (three of her grandparents had been enslaved), Catlett was born in Washington D.C. and educated at Dunbar High School and Howard University where she studied design, printmaking, and drawing. Her graduate work at the University of Iowa led to her receiving the first MFA degree earned in sculpture.

After graduate school Catlett spent a few years teaching in New Orleans and Harlem. In New York she married artist Charles White, who is noted for his WPA era murals. White’s most famous work is “The Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy,” a mural at Hampton University depicting a number of notable blacks including Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Peter Salem, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Marian Anderson. While teaching in Harlem, Catlett received a Rosenwald Fellowship that allowed her to move to Mexico to study. She divorced White during this move, and made Mexico her home. She joined the internationally recognized Taller de Gráfica Popular (Taller People’s Graphic Arts Workshop). Taller was founded in 1937 by a group of printmakers who were dedicated to using their art to promote social change. At Taller Catlett met Mexican artist and Taller member Francisco Mora (1922-2002). The couple married in 1947. They remained members of Taller until 1966.

During her first two years in Mexico, Catlett completed her internationally renowned Negro Woman Series (1946-47). The 15 linoleum cuts in the series pay homage to black women and their struggles to endure the harsh realities of racism, segregation, and poverty. Paying tribute to the working poor and creating images of iconic figures in the black liberation struggle (Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, Angela Davis) have been major features of Catlett’s work throughout her entire career. She also created similar images and portraits of revolutionary figures and ordinary people in Latin America. As Catlett stated to her biographer Melanie Anne Herzog:

“I was born in the US and l have lived in Mexico since 1946. I believe that all these states of being have influenced my work and made it what you see today. I am inspired by Black people and Mexican people, my two peoples. My art speaks for both my peoples.”

Beneath the grandmotherly visage we see in photos taken in her later years beats the fierce heart of a female warrior. Catlett was a feminist before the term was popularized, and an tireless supporter of human rights and progressive causes. Her membership in the Communist Party and her involvement with leftists politics and labor struggles in Mexico during the height of the McCarthy era made her a target of US Government surveillance. Membership in the Taller de Gráfica Popular Workshop also came with consequences. The US Government labeled TGP a “communist front organization” and banned its members from entering the US. Catlett too fell victim to that policy. The US State Department declared her an “undesirable alien” and barred her entry to the US for ten years (her US citizenship was restored in 2002). The intimidation tactics didn’t impede her work. Catlett became a Mexican citizen in 1962, and continued to champion the black struggle in the US and the struggle to improve the lives of Mexican workers. Mexico also offered Catlett opportunities to develop as an artist and educator that were unavailable to her in the states. She became the first female professor of sculpture and chair of the sculpture department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in Mexico City, in 1958, and taught there until her retirement in 1975.

Catlett continued to work well into her nineties. In her later years her reputation as an artist grew significantly. Exhibitions of her works were mounted in galleries and museums around the world, and she earned the well deserved recognition by art critics and the arts community as one of the most important African American artists of the 20th century.

Sharecropper, (1952), is one of Catlett’s most iconic works. The print is made from a linocut–a pattern of cuts made on a linoleum block.

Malcolm X Speaks for Us (1969). Catlett used a linoleum cut to create this image of the black activist surrounded by black women. As her title suggests, Catlett perceived Malcolm, the prototypical “strong black man,” as also speaking for the concerns and aspirations of black women.

Homage to the Panthers, (1970),  Linocut

Homage to Black Woman Poets, (1984), Mahogany

Blues Player, (1995), lithograph

Links Together, (1996), color lithograph

Female Torso, (1998), Black Marble

Stargazer, (2007), Black Marble

The National Visionary Leadership Project has posted an interview with Catlett on its website in which the artist discusses her life and career and gives advice to young African Americans.

NYT obit: Elizabeth Catlett, Sculptor With Eye on Social Issues, Dies at 96

LA Times: Artist Elizabeth Catlett remembered

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Nelson Mandela Digital Archives

The Nelson Mandela Digital Archives—a joint project of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory (NMCM) and the Google Cultural Institute—has been launched on the internet. It contains thousands of handwritten documents and photos taken from Mandela’s private papers. This is the first time the materials have been made available to the public.

Nelson Mandela Digital Archives.