Elizabeth Catlett: In the Image of the People

by Melanie Herzog



Negro es Bello: Transnational Solidarity

During the 1960s the political climate in the United States shifted again as the Civil Rights Movement, the protests against the Vietnam War, the Black Power Movement, and other activities brought the politics of solidarity and liberation to the streets. Though prohibited from traveling to her country of origin, Catlett, from her vantage point in Mexico, turned her attention to the Civil Rights and Black Power struggles raging in the United States, focusing her art with passion and clarity on the aspirations and struggles of her sisters and brothers, responding with fury against the police brutality directed at African Americans, and demanding witness for women's role in movements for black liberation.[26] The Black Arts Movement, a loosely connected, community-based network of artists devoted to the development of a collective aesthetic of self-determination rooted in black nationalism, became the community that sustained her from afar.

Informed by her transnational perspective, her prints from this period, now including serigraphs and monoprints, manifest the affinity Catlett felt for the Black Arts Movement's visual expression of black identity, pride in African ancestry, and the revolutionary promise of Black Power. Her earlier Sharecropper, reprinted beginning in 1968 using the original linoleum block, emphasizes the woman's ethnicity through the addition of color (see plate 19). Monumental, seen from below, this imposing image of a rural Southern fieldworker became an iconic image of black pride.

In her prints Catlett has continued to emphasize across national borders her commitment to making visible the experiences of African American women and children, and to social justice for African Americans and other oppressed peoples. Though her work became less confrontational in the decades following the ferment of the 1960s and early 1970s, she proclaimed solidarity with antifascist and anticolonial struggles in Chile and Central America during the 1980s in linocuts that recall the TGP's most politically outspoken work. Of her enduring commitment to her chosen subjects she said in 1983:

Because I am a woman and know how a woman feels in body and mind, I sculpt, draw, and print women, generally black women. Many of my sculptures and prints deal with maternity because I am a mother and a grandmother. Once in while I do men because I love my husband and sons, I share their sorrows and joys and I fear for them in the unsettled world of today.[27]

Although she and Francisco Mora left the TGP in 1966, in linocuts, lithographs, serigraphs, and monoprints Catlett has continued to draw upon the consummate mastery of graphic techniques she developed at the Taller de Gráfica Popular. Her 1979 lithograph Two Generations (plate 20) exemplifies her handling of lithographic crayon drawing in its full range of tonalities and subtle textures. An image of intergenerational continuity, Two Generations restates the dignity and resilience of Sharecropper as the sensitively rendered profile of an elderly worker is paired with that of a young child.

Catlett's Survivor of 1983 (plate 21) also depicts a rural Southern U.S. laborer, careworn and strong. Derived directly from Dorothea Lange's Ex-slave with a Long Memory, a photograph Lange made in Alabama in 1937-38 while documenting rural Southern life in the United States for the Farm Security Administration (the woman in Lange's photograph faces left, while Catlett's linocut image, drawn following Lange and reversed in the printing process, faces right), Survivor recalls the TGP's use of well-known photographic images as sources. Yet, while the woman in Lange's photograph is seen against the background of the field in which she toils, Catlett's minimally rendered background only suggests topography in its abstract linear pattern. Outlined in white, the woman becomes the unmistakable focus of the image. As in her earlier linocuts, Catlett utilized various nicks, gouges, and incised lines to delineate her subject's physical presence, but in contrast to her work at the TGP, this image is somewhat more spare, reminiscent of Kollwitz's later woodcuts.

Throughout her career as a printmaker, Catlett has returned to subjects and themes that matter to her, particularly the strength and resilience of ordinary working women and heroic African American foremothers. Her 1975 Harriet (plate 22) is a powerful restatement of her admiration for the woman she had portrayed twice before: in her Negro Woman series and again as part of a collective project she organized in 1953-54 at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, now known as Against Discrimination in the U.S.[28] The powerfully thrusting gesture of this Harriet, barely contained by the print's edges, links her to Catlett's earlier "In Harriet Tubman I helped hundreds to freedom" (plate 9) from The Negro Woman, as does the mass of people following her command. But the facial expression, gesture, and stance of this heroine are more fiercely energetic, the entire linocut infused with vigorous dynamism by the forceful linear hatching through which Catlett acknowledges and honors the fundamental importance of her years of experience at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, an experience that continues to inflect her artistic vision. Harriet is at once a statement of her deeply rooted, lifelong identification with her African American ancestry and heritage, and her politics of justice and liberation for all people.

Throughout her life, Catlett has moved between cultures, participating in communities that transcend national boundaries in their concerns and convictions. In these communities of politically engaged artists -- whether in Chicago, Harlem, or Mexico City -- Catlett developed and refined the visual language through which she represents and speaks to those whose histories and experiences have not been represented in art. Her United States citizenship was restored in 2002, and she is now a citizen of both the United States and Mexico. Still inextricably interwoven, her social and aesthetic visions remain grounded in what she learned about people's art through the lively collaborative ethos of the TGP, the community that sustained her for decades in Mexico. In her words,

Art can't be the exclusive domain of the elect. It has to belong to everyone. Otherwise it will continue to divide the privileged from the underprivileged, Blacks from Chicanos, and both from the rural, ghetto, and middle-class whites. Artists should work to the end that love, peace, justice, and equal opportunity prevail all over the world; to the end that all people take joy in full participation in the rich material, intellectual, and spiritual resources of this world's lands, peoples, and goods.[29]

Now celebrated as a foremother herself by younger generations of African American artists, at age ninety Elizabeth Catlett continues to experiment with various printmaking processes. She maintains her conviction that art can be a source of pride, raise awareness of social issues, and offer a vision of a more just world, as she voices -- through her prints -- both her commitment to art made in the image of the people, and her concern for the past and future of all humanity.


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