“Art for me must develop from a necessity within my people. It must answer a question, or wake somebody up, or give a shove in the right direction — our liberation.” -Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett is probably the most celebrated Black-American-Mexican sculptor, printmaker, activist, and professor you probably never learned about in school. She is best known for her highly political, expressionistic sculptures and prints. She is also known for her activism and advocacy that eventually led to the U.S. taking away her citizenship.
Catlett was born to two public school teachers, John and Mary Carson Catlett in Washington D.C. on April 15, 1915. From the time when she was very young, her talent for art was always encouraged by her parents. Unfortunately, segregation and racism made sure opportunities for Black women in the arts were scarce — but that didn’t stop her.
She went to Howard University, where she studied design, drawing, and printmaking with some of the most influential artists from the Harlem Renaissance — Lois Mailou Jones, James Porter, and James Lesesne Wells. She followed in the footsteps of her parents and also became a public school teacher and taught in Durham, North Carolina for two years before entering graduate school at the University of Iowa.
It was there that she began to deal artistically with the subject she was most familiar with — being a Black woman. This would be the theme she would spend the rest of her life celebrating through sculpture and prints. Catlett’s work debunked the racist ideas leftover from slavery that Black women lacked the maternal instincts to care for their own children and were only fit to be nannies. She became the first Black woman to earn a degree from the University of Iowa, but was not allowed to live on campus because of her race — today there is a residence hall named after her.
Her masters thesis, a limestone sculpture Negro Mother and Child (1940) won first place in the 1940 Chicago American Negro Exposition. It shows a Black mother and child in a loving embrace, a rare sight for the era. Catlett also knew many of the artists from the Black Chicago Renaissance, like Margaret Burroughs, Eldzier Cortor, Margaret Walker, and Charles White who she married in 1941.
In 1946, she received a Julius Rosenwald Foundation grant the same year she ended her marriage to White. Catlett used the grant money to move to Mexico City so she could study printmaking at the Taller de Gráfica Popular (People’s Graphic Art Workshop) a well known collective for the creation of sociopolitical art and post-revolutionary idealism, which she was heavily influenced by. At TGP Catlett met artists like Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente-Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, as well as Mexican painter Francisco Mora who she would marry in 1947. While in Mexico, she created “The Negro Woman” series among other powerful works, which spotlighted the lives of Black working-class women.
Catlett was an activist as much as she was an artist, she created art with social and political function for the Black community. “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,” she once told her student Samella S. Lewis. But she was also very much involved outside of the studio, she participated in anti-fascist activities at Howard University, in teacher protests in Durham, and in segregation protests in New Orleans. When she arrived in Mexico, she continued fighting for the working class and the downtrodden. She was arrested during a 1949 railroad workers’ strike in Mexico City and continued to fight for women’s and worker’s rights throughout her lifetime.
But her life of activism and association with Marxist and Communist ideals on both sides of the border eventually made her a target of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Because many members of the TGP and her husband were Communists and because of the nature of her work and activism, the U.S. State Department declared her an undesirable alien and her U.S. citizenship was revoked, forcing her to become a Mexican citizen (she was already a resident). She even had to request a special visa to re-enter the U.S. to attend the opening of her one-woman exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Even though Catlett regained her American citizenship in 2002, she lived out the rest of her life in Mexico with Mora and their three sons. She died in Cuernavaca in 2012 at the age of 96. She is still represented in many collections all over the world including the National Museum of Prague, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York and Mexico, and the Library of Congress, among many others. She remains one of the most celebrated artists of her generation.