Elizabeth Catlett. A name most people wouldn’t recognize. However she was great sculptor, graphic artist, and activist who passed away quietly in her sleep on April 2nd at the age of 96. The world has lost a great woman and one of the 20th Century’s top African American artists.
Her life was diverse in experiences. Born in Washington D.C. in 1915, Catlett attended Howard University School of Art, University of Iowa, and the Art Institute of Chicago. She also studied studied with sculptor Ossip Zadkine, wood carving with Jose L. Ruiz, and ceramic sculpture with Francisco Zuniga.
While teaching at Dillard University, Karen Rosenberg of The New York Times reports: “There she organized a trip to the Delgado Museum of Art so that her students could see a Picasso exhibition. But this was no ordinary school trip; the museum was officially off-limits to blacks, so Ms. Catlett arranged to visit on a day when it was closed to the public.” Catlett found a way around the racist “system” to view the exhibit.
According to Cartlett’s website: “Throughout her career, Catlett has been a political progressive committed to improving the lives of African-American and Mexican women, and she has often used her art explicitly to advance their cause. She has also protested, picketed, and even been arrested in her quest to win justice for those she describes as ‘my people.’ Moving from the United States to Mexico in 1946, she was eventually identified as an ‘undesirable alien’ by the U.S. State Department. For nearly a decade she was barred from visiting the United States.” Catlett’s success eventually pressured the United States government into granting her access for exhibitions including a solo exhibit at Harlem’s Studio Museum in 1971.
Catlett’s 1992 Lithograph print titled Walking Blindly (For My People Suite) showcases one colorful female figure painted on top of a grey background of three shadowy figurines. They represent the female’s nagging mother, an alcoholic partner, and a despondent son. The central female figure raises her hands in exhaustion, disbelief, and frustration. This piece is one of the many examples of Catlett’s strong subject matter and social commentary on the African-American female experience.
Walking Blindly (For My People Suite): http://www.artnet.com/artwork/426193423/424646353/elizabeth-catlett-walking-blindly-for-my-people-suite.html
The “undesirable alien” continued to champion for women despite her status. Catlett: “Art is only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people.” She didn’t walk blindly or go quietly.