Elizabeth Catlett (1915 – 2012) was an African-American and Mexican sculptor and artist whose art encompassed the Black struggles in 20th century America. With themes including race and feminism, depicting the Black female experience was a vital driving force in Catlett's career.
From a young age, Catlett’s life was shrouded in racial and socio-political injustices. She spent her childhood summers with her grandparents - who were freed slaves, in North Carolina. With the southern United States known for being overwhelmingly racist (shown evidently through the Jim Crow laws), Catlett recalls seeing African-American sharecroppers “living and working in extreme poverty”. Like her grandparents, these sharecroppers were former slaves but, now freed, they were still being exploited through their labour. This inspired the creation of Sharecropper (1952), one of her famous pieces depicting a woman in a straw hat looking empty.
These racial injustices became clearer during her university experience. Her scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology was withdrawn on the basis of her race, however, she got accepted into Howard University, graduating with honours in 1935. Five years later, she became the first African-American woman to graduate with an MFA in sculpture from the University of Iowa. Across the different universities, Catlett was lucky to be taught by influential individuals, including artist Lois Mailou Jones, philosopher Alain Locke and Grant Wood.
In 1946, Catlett embarked on relocating to Mexico City with her husband after being offered a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation. There, she painted Frida Kahlo and Deigo Rivera-inspired murals and later joined the Taller de Grafica (an influential yet political group of artists), where she met her second husband. The group enabled her to advocate for accessible and affordable art for all. In 1958, Catlett taught at the National School of Fine Arts until her retirement in 1976.
Heavily inspired by Primitivism and Cubism, Catlett drew on moments of both her American and Mexican life to create her iconic pieces. Using linocut prints and sculptures, her work often centred on key Black individuals, motherhood and dynamic symbols of the Black Power movement. “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 has said.
Today, Elizabeth Catlett’s thought-provoking and emotional artworks are displayed at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Art Institute of Chicago, to name a few.