Elizabeth Catlett

1915Washington, United States | 2012Cuernavaca, Mexico
Elizabeth Catlett — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

© Photo: Fern Logan

American painter and sculptor.

Excluded from Carnegie-Mellon University because of the colour of her skin, Elizabeth Catlett later attended Dunbar High School in Washington, where she studied with Lois Mailou Jones and then in the University of Iowa with Grant Wood, an expert on rural America. Her sculpture Mother and Child (1939), created for her final-year thesis, earned her first prize at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940. The visual power and clear ethnic heritage of this mother embracing her child was met with great success. After moving to New York with her husband Charles White – a major figure in the social realism movement – E. Catlett was introduced to cubism by sculptor Ossip Zadkine. At the same time, she took part in the activities of the Harlem Artists’ Guild, as well as the Harlem Community Art Center. In 1946, she created The Negro Woman, a series of lithographs which included I Helped Hundreds to Freedom, a representation of the “black people’s Moses”, Harriet Tubman, powerfully leading slaves to freedom. These lithographs inaugurated a whole series of works paying tribute to the courage and beauty of African American women.

In 1947, E. Catlett moved to Mexico with her second husband, artist Francisco Mora and studied alongside major figures of Mexican sculpture, Francisco Zúñiga and Jose L. Ruiz, whose struggle to create art in the service of the people deeply inspired her. Despite her expat status, she remained heavily involved in the civil rights and Black Power movements. The latter even used one of her most famous works as one of its emblems: Malcolm X Speaks for Us (1969). The first woman to be named head of the sculpture department of the University of Mexico, in 1959, she won numerous awards, such as the Tlatilco at the first biennial of sculpture held in Mexico City in 1962. Criticized by the US Embassy in Mexico City, which has a negative view of her relations with members of the Communist and Socialist Party, she abandons American citizenship to become a Mexican citizen, and she is declared undesirable in the United States. Nicknamed the “Mother of the Black Art Movement”, she obtain a special visa authorizing her to return to the United States, for a retrospective of her work organised by the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Sonia Recasens

Translated from French by Anna Knight.

From the Dictionnaire universel des créatrices
© 2013 Des femmes – Antoinette Fouque
© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
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