Elizabeth Catlett was born in 1915 in Washington DC. Her grandparents had been slaves and had told her about their experience of slavery and working on the plantations. Her parents worked in education but since her father died before she was born, her mother had to work several jobs in order to support her three children, of whom Catlett was the youngest.
She started developing an interest in woodcarving after coming across a figurine carved by her late father, and decided she wanted to study art. She successfully applied to the Carnegie Institute of Technology but the school refused to let Catlett matriculate upon finding out that she was black. Instead she went to the historically black Howard University, and from there on to Iowa University, where in 1940 she became the first African-American woman to graduate with a MFA.
At Iowa, Catlett was encouraged to make work about the subjects she knew best – the reality of being an African-American woman, raising children, being at once dispossessed yet also proud and dignified. Women became the subject of much of her work, women with broad hips and angular faces, standing proudly, sometimes raising their fists, sometimes nursing children, but almost invariably depicted from a slightly lower angle, so that the viewer is forced to look up at them.
I felt my work should do something for women because nobody was interested in them
In 1941, Catlett married fellow artist Charles White and followed him South, where he had won a scholarship to study and make murals. In the South, Catlett experienced even harsher racism, and became firmer in her resolution to dedicate her art to representing and elevating black people.
She did this not only by making the black experience the subject of her work, but by being a passionate teacher. She would teach for decades.
In the early 1940s, she taught sculpture and dressmaking to adults at the Carver School in Harlem. The experience of teaching working class people who had limited access to education moved Catlett deeply. She saw how hungry to learn her students were; she later found that same hunger for education during her time in Mexico.
In 1946, she won the same Rosenwald Foundation grant her husband had been awarded five years prior, and she used it to move it to Mexico City. There, she joined the Taller de Grafica Popular, a group of printmakers who shared her vision of art as a political tool and responsibility. Catlett divorced White, with whom she had three sons, and married artist Francisco Mora.
In Mexico, her work evolved to encompass lithographs, linoleum cuts, and sculpture in wood, stone, clay and bronze. In it, one can see the influence of modernism with its abstract form and smooth shapes, the angular woodcut of German expressionism, African masks, Mexican populist art and more. Catlett was active in Mexico at the same time as some American artists were becoming internationally known for pop art, and this can be glimpsed in some of her work. But ever the activist, where Warhol was concerned with celebrity culture, Catlett focused on African American activists, as in her print ‘Malcolm X Speaks for Us’.
She was not so concerned with the aesthetics of her work and with the critics’ judgment of it, as with her mission as an artist. Of her art, she said: “I have always wanted [it] to service my people – to reflect us, to relate us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”
As a political activist, Catlett was targeted by the Communist witch-hunts of the mid-century. Repeatedly questioned and threatened to have her passport removed, eventually Catlett gave up her American citizenship and was declared an undesirable alien.
In 1958, she became the first female professor of sculpture at the School of Fine Arts in Mexico City. She carried on teaching even after becoming a successful artist until, in 1975 she retired to Cuernavaca in Mexico. She then spent her time between Mexico and New York. She regained her American citizenship in 2002.
Catlett experienced discrimination throughout her life: she was black, she was poor, she was a woman, and she was targeted by the American government. It was not easy for her to have her voice heard and her work seen, yet she never compromised the nature of her work nor what she stood for. Eventually, fame found her, her work was exhibited on a bigger scale and introduced to a new audience by jazz musician Rufus Reid, who composed an album inspired by her work.
Catlett died in 2012. The fact that her work isn’t better known speaks of the discrimination rife in the art world, but Catlett’s legacy is kept alive by both artists and art historians who were inspired by her life and work.