Elizabeth Catlett: In the Image of the People

by Melanie Herzog



The Taller de Gráfica Popular: Prints for People's Sake

Catlett's decision to make her home in Mexico was in part a response to the U.S. government's increasingly vicious attacks on progressive artists, intellectuals, and activists following the end of World War II. In March 1947, for example, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9835, directing the Department of Justice to develop a list of "totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive" organizations. Among those named was the Carver School. That same year, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) began holding hearings on the threat of Communist subversion within the United States. Individuals called as witnesses by HUAC who refused either to give the names of their associates or to answer the Committee's questions were cited for contempt; many lost their jobs, suffered continued persecution, and received prison sentences.[10] In this environment of political intimidation, Catlett soon realized that, had she continued to reside in her country of origin, suspicion of her apparent political sympathies would have inevitably resulted in government harassment and questioning by HUAC. Fortunately, she had found respite in Mexico from the incessant racism she faced in the United States, and she discovered a community of artists at the Taller de Gráfica Popular whose aims were in accord with her own.

Founded in 1937 by graphic artists and muralists Leopoldo Méndez, Raúl Anguiano, Luis Arenal, and Pablo O'Higgins, the Taller de Gráfica Popular was a workshop dedicated to the Mexican people; at its center was a much-loved printing press inscribed "Paris 1871" that was popularly believed to have been used by the graphic artists of the Paris Commune. Employing straightforward and expressive realism and immediately recognizable imagery, workshop members worked collectively and individually to create print portfolios, posters, and broadsides that celebrated the history of the Mexican people. They also produced materials that supported unions and agricultural workers; endorsed national literacy programs and movements for social justice; and condemned fascism.[11] Leopoldo Méndez's 1942 linocut Deportación a la muerte (Transport to Death) illustrates the TGP's grasp of linoleum as an expressive graphic medium. Published in 1943 in El Libro Negro del Terror Nazi en Europa/The Black Book of Nazi-Terror in Europe, an international collaboration illustrated with drawings and prints by TGP members and other artists from the United States and Europe, Transport to Death (fig. 2) illuminates the awareness among international antifascists of the extent of Nazi atrocities that were yet to be acknowledged by the United States government.[12]

Though the tremendous paintings of the revolutionary Mexican muralists of this period, particularly los tres grandes Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, were better known, the graphic images of the Taller de Gráfica Popular -- pasted on walls and signboards throughout Mexico City -- were perhaps more effective as immediate political commentary on urgent topical issues. Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros all supported the workshop's efforts during the 1940s, though Siqueiros disagreed with the TGP's assertion that revolutionary art should be realistic in form as well as content in order to speak most directly to the needs of the people. He argued instead that revolutionary art should incorporate new media, new styles, and technology appropriate to a revolutionary age.[13] Still, he did utilize the services of the workshop's lithography technician to produce limited editions of "traditional" prints such as Dos niños of 1956 (fig. 3).

By the time Catlett arrived in Mexico in 1946, members of the Taller de Gráfica Popular had produced thousands of linoleum cuts, woodcuts, and lithographs that were generally printed on cheap, newsprint-quality paper, sometimes in unnumbered editions. Foremost among the projects underway when she arrived was Estampas de la Revolución Mexicana, a portfolio of eighty-five linocuts with narrative titles and explanatory text that celebrates the revolutionary fervor, courageous acts, and tragic martyrdom of common people as heroes of the Mexican Revolution.[14] Many of the portfolio's images -- some with bold, angular contour lines and dramatic light and dark contrasts, others intricately incised, detailed renderings of figures and their surroundings -- were taken from well-known photographic images of the Mexican Revolution that would have been immediately recognizable to their largely illiterate audience of Mexican working people. This portfolio served as a model for Catlett as she envisioned The Negro Woman, her own epic historical narrative of black women's experiences in the United States.

Undertaken in 1946 and 1947, The Negro Woman is a series of fifteen linoleum cuts that acknowledges the harsh reality of black women's labor, honors several renowned heroines in particular, and renders visible the fears, struggles, and achievements of ordinary African American women. At once graphically monumental and intimately scaled, these prints draw the viewer in close. Face to face with these striking images, we are summoned as well by the accompanying narrative to join in Catlett's identification with her subject, embodied in the first-person naming of each image: "I am the Negro woman. I have always worked hard in America. . . . In the Fields. . . . In other folks' homes. . . . I have given the world my songs. In Sojourner Truth I fought for the rights of women as well as Negroes. In Harriet Tubman I helped hundreds to freedom. In Phillis Wheatley I proved intellectual equality in the midst of slavery. My role has been important in the struggle to organize the unorganized. I have studied in ever increasing numbers. My reward has been bars between me and the rest of the land. I have special reservations. . . . Special houses. . . . And a special fear for my loved ones. My right is a future of equality with other Americans" (see plates 3­17).[15] As art historian Richard J. Powell has noted, "Catlett invites everyone -- women, men, blacks, whites, whomever -- to act as surrogate 'Negro women,' if only via the stating of each title."[16] Spoken aloud or read silently, the repeated "I" of this narrative demands witness through the act of identifying.

Though they vary somewhat in their style, as would be expected of work in a medium relatively new to a young artist, most of the prints in Catlett's Negro Woman series are forcefully gouged with sharp, angular strokes that manifest Catlett's strong sense of design and her attentiveness to the textural possibilities of linoleum cuts. Composition reinforces meaning: the vast spatial recession of "In the fields" (plate 5), for example, signifies the sharecropper's unending labor, while the domestic worker in the tightly framed "In other folks' homes" (plate 6) has no room to move, her outsized muscular arms and hands unable to break free of the restraining edge of the image and the constraints of her circumstances. The historical figures Catlett depicted are based on iconic and frequently reproduced engravings: Sojourner Truth, whose celebrated "Ain't I a Woman" speech at an 1851 women's rights convention offered an eloquent analysis of race, gender, and black women's experience; Harriet Tubman, who in the 1850s guided hundreds of slaves to freedom and inspired countless others; and Phillis Wheatley, the enslaved, eighteenth-century poet who wrote of freedom (see plates 8­10).

Images that represent the steadfast activism and endurance of ordinary African American women recall those who inspired Catlett's Negro Woman series and her earlier life experiences. "I have studied in ever increasing numbers" (plate 12) invokes her students at the Carver School, while "I have special reservations" (plate 14) bitterly recalls the delimiting segregation of the American South and, more particularly, her advocacy in support of Dillard students who were wrongfully jailed for allegedly removing the "Colored Only" signs from a New Orleans city bus.[17] But the North does not avoid reproach: "Special houses" (plate 15) depicts the overcrowded living conditions faced by African Americans in New York, Chicago, and other Northern cities, as the two exhausted-looking women are pressed forward to the surface of the image by the tenements that fill the space behind them. The presence of women is also implied in "And a special fear for my loved ones" (plate 16), which focuses on the prostrate form of a lynched man. Three pairs of feet above him could be those of his attackers or of others still hanging from ropes like the one encircling the dead man's neck. Both past and present fears are invoked here. In contrast, the final image of the series looks to "a future of equality with other Americans" (plate 17).

With The Negro Woman, Catlett claimed for black women's lives the historical importance accorded the Mexican Revolution in the TGP's Estampas de la Revolución Mexicana. This series was indebted as well to the examples of her African American contemporaries, especially her friend Jacob Lawrence's series of paintings of historical heroes and events, most notably his Migration of the Negro series of 1940­41. Catlett was also inspired by German printmaker Käthe Kollwitz's powerfully expressionistic images of women, their large, strong hands connoting their working-class status. Most particularly, though, she found a model for her own development as a printmaker in the stylistic approach of artists such as Leopoldo Méndez, whose facility at exploiting to their fullest the textural and tonal possibilities of linocuts and whose ability to render the workshop's political messages in aesthetically compelling graphic terms made him a leader among the workshop's collective membership (see fig. 4).

Catlett brought to Mexico a strong sense of identity as a black woman, forged during her early years in the United States and informed by her historical awareness and her politics, and an unwavering commitment to speak through her art to the ordinary people she saw as hungry for culture -- to produce art for people's sake. In Mexico, she reframed and expanded her sense of identity to encompass her identification with the struggles and aspirations of the Mexican people. Layered with the accretions of her social, political, and artistic affiliations and experiences, identity for Catlett can be thought of as an active process of identification; as cultural sociologist Stuart Hall asserts, identity is "not an essence but a positioning."[18] Furthermore, Hall has stressed that "identity is always in part a narrative, always in part a kind of representation. . . . Identity is not something which is formed outside and then we tell stories about it. It is that which is narrated in one's own self."[19] Recalling the "I am" of her Negro Woman series, identification -- the act of identifying -- became a fundamental and politically charged aspect of Catlett's printmaking. And it is the basis for Catlett's renaming this series The Black Woman, in accord with the designation now favored by African Americans, when she resumed exhibiting in the United States in 1971. When shown in Mexico in the intervening decades, the series was titled La mujer negra; the Spanish negra, which translates as "black" as well as "Negro" in feminine form, did not demand the renaming that was politically necessary in English.

When she decided to make her home in Mexico, Catlett immersed herself in Mexican life and culture and in the activities of the Taller de Gráfica Popular. Her initial "guest" status at the workshop was eventually exchanged for full membership, and she embraced the collective process of the TGP, depicting subjects consistent with those of other workshop members and taking its audience, which encompassed ordinary Mexican people as well as people working for social justice in other parts of the world, as her own. In 1947 she married fellow printmaker Francisco Mora (1922-2002); she and Mora remained members of the TGP until 1966. While she was raising their three sons -- Francisco, born in 1947; Juan, born in 1949; and David, born in 1951 -- the Taller served as her primary community. Only when her youngest son went to kindergarten was she able to resume her work in sculpture; and in 1959 she became the first woman sculpture professor at Mexico's National Autonomous University, where she taught until 1975.

At the TGP Catlett made prints in the evenings and always tried to attend the Friday night collective meetings to which members of other organizations often came with requests for graphic images in support of their work. Central to these meetings were critiques of works-in-progress, intended to aid workshop members in producing prints that most effectively conveyed their desired message. Catlett's description of these lively sessions captures the sense of community and camaraderie that was fundamental to the workshop's success:

The criticism in the Taller was always positive, like somebody would say, "I think that you have a very good design, and it's very clear, but why did you hide the hands?" And so they would say, "I can't draw hands." "Well, I'll help you, or I'll draw the hands." Or they would say, "This symbolism has been used over and over, it's time we had something new," and so then they would have a general discussion of what you could use. . . . And it didn't matter how many people worked on something, as long as it came out the best we could make it.[20]

Increasingly identifying with the people to whom the Taller de Gráfica Popular was dedicated, Catlett also adopted the workshop's visual language. By the early 1950s, the vigorous angularity of her early prints had given way to a rounder, more intricately textured handling of linocuts and lithographs. Deftly cut into linoleum and drawn with grease crayon on lithography stones, her figures are modeled with the subtle range of tonality seen in the work of the TGP's most technically accomplished printmakers. Her embrace of the workshop's graphic style was emblematic of her growing understanding of the meaning of mestizaje, the blending of indigenous, Spanish, and African ancestries shared by many in Mexico, and of her recognition of commonalities and convergences among African American and Mexican peoples' histories and experiences. She was also determined that her graphic images of Mexicans -- working women, urban laborers and campesinos, children working and caring for smaller children, homeless children in the city, indigenous children in the country -- and African Americans -- mothers, workers, ordinary people, and historical heroines -- speak clearly to her various audiences, African American and Mexican. Again, Richard J. Powell has written of her prints: "When one is face to face with Elizabeth Catlett's graphic work, after celebrating her technical accomplishments and eye for eloquence, one must acknowledge, then marvel at, the inclusive, international dimensions of her subjects' blackness, femaleness, and mejicanismo."[21]

Mexico became the vantage point from which Catlett articulated her African American identity in prints such as Civil Rights Congress of 1950, which invokes the documentary specificity and graphic symbolism employed by the TGP. Civil Rights Congress (plate 1) commemorates this organization's presentation in 1950 of a petition to the United Nations charging the United States with genocide against African Americans. Immediately recognizable is William Patterson, organizer for the Communist Party and national executive secretary of the Civil Rights Congress, who restrains the figure menacing the seated child. This robed figure, his shoes and trousers visible beneath his garment, is unmistakably a member of the Ku Klux Klan. At the same time, however, his face and arms are those of a calavera, or skeleton figure, an image readily legible to a Mexican audience familiar with this symbol used in popular prints since the time of José Guadalupe Posada, the progenitor of Mexico's graphic tradition of incisive social commentary. In addition, Catlett's lighting of the face of the child, clearly of African descent, recalls her earlier treatment of African American physiognomy inspired by West African masks. Thus, with its meaning clear to both her African American and Mexican audiences, this print speaks symbolically and stylistically across cultural boundaries.

Most consistent with the work of other TGP artists are the prints Catlett made for the workshop's various collective projects. La Presa (The Dam) of 1952 (plate 2) celebrates the harnessing of the hydraulic resources that bring electricity to the rural areas of Mexico, here symbolically illuminating the education of Mexico's people. The meticulously rendered details of the bridge, water, and distant landscape, along with the straightforward realism of the two youths engaged in study of what appears to be a TGP-illustrated text, clearly convey the meaning of this relatively large linocut, made for a government-sponsored conference and exhibition on hydraulic resources.[22]

Sharecropper (plate 18), also produced during the early 1950s, is one of Catlett's most celebrated linocuts. Although the image was initially printed in black and white, some early proofs also include experiments with color. One of these, titled Negro Woman, won the second-place award for prints in 1952 at the Atlanta University Art Annual, at that time the most important venue for African American artists.[23] While the subject recalls the Southern women of Catlett's earlier Negro Woman series, her carving of the linoleum block for Sharecropper -- its subtly varied, closely spaced hatchings delineating contour, pattern, material, and texture -- reflects the fluency she developed in this medium at the TGP. At the same time, the expressionistic angularity of the woman's careworn face marks Sharecropper as kin to many of Catlett's depictions of African American women workers. Characteristic of Catlett's portrayal throughout her career of strong, dignified black women, Sharecropper's authoritative compositional focus and carefully delineated forms are emblematic of the attention and respect Catlett feels her subject deserves.

In the climate of the Cold War, the politics and social realist style of the Taller de Gráfica Popular were regarded as dangerous; the TGP was ultimately labeled a "Communist Front organization" by the U.S. Attorney General, and its members were prohibited from entering the United States.[24] Catlett's affiliation with the workshop thus reinforced the scrutiny of her activities in Mexico, and she was subjected to harassment by the United States embassy throughout the 1950s. When the Mexican government's increasing complicity in the deportation of U.S. citizens wanted for questioning by HUAC meant that she was no longer safe in her adopted country, Catlett applied for Mexican citizenship; she received it in 1962 and was immediately declared an "undesirable alien" by the U.S. State Department and denied entry to the United States. Her 1961 visit to the United States to deliver the keynote address to the Third Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Negro Artists in Washington was therefore her last until she was granted a visa to attend the opening of her solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1971.[25]

Go to page 1 / 2 / 3 / 4

This is page 2

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2005 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.