Wednesday, February 3, 2016

February Is African American History Month -- Elizabeth Catlett

   A little known fact is that several African American artists went to Mexico where they felt more welcomed and able to create amongst the largesse and hospitality of David Alfaro Siquieros,  Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and other great artists of the 1930s and 40s. One was Elizabeth Catlett, a sculptress and painter who should be widely known in the United States.  Here is a website devoted to Catlett and her sculpture. It includes a timeline of her life. Beautifully included are videos of Catlett telling her own story. Don't miss taking a look.

   Catlett moved to Mexico, stayed in the house of Siquieros' mother and fell in love with Francisco Mora a painter. She was still married to Charles White, a famous artist from the United States with whom she traveled to Mexico.  She divorced him to marry Mora.
   Here's what the website says about Elizabeth Catlett:
"In a career spanning more than 70 years, Elizabeth Catlett has created sculptures that celebrate the heroic strength and endurance of African-American and Mexican working-class women. With simple, clear shapes she evokes both the physical and spiritual essence of her subjects. Her hardy laborers and nurturing mothers radiate both power and a timeless dignity and calm. Whether working in wood, stone, bronze, or clay, Catlett reveals an extraordinary technical virtuosity, a natural ability to meld her curving female forms with the grain, whorls, color, or luster of her chosen medium. The beauty of her subjects is matched by the beauty she reveals in her sculptural materials.

"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.

"Despite these struggles, Catlett's art reveals no trace of bitterness or despair. Indeed, she has remained true to the universal, life-affirming themes that first animated her sculpture in the 1940s'the beauty of the human form and the nobility of the human condition. At age 95, she continues to create, guided by those unshakeable ideals."   Jeff Harrison, Chief Curator, Chrysler Museum of Art

      Vendedoro de Periodicos is the title of this drawing by Catlett. She excelled in sculpture, painting, printmaking, and more.  She was a professor of fine art as well.  Clearly her progressive political ideals affected the kinds and themes of her sculptures and paintings.  "Her work blends art and social consciousness to confront the most disturbing injustices against African Americans. She is best known for her work during the 1960s and 70s, when she created politically charged, black expressionistic sculptures and prints."
   Elizabeth Catlett taught at the National School of Fine Arts in Mexico from 1958 to 1976.  She continued to produce art, dividing her time between New York and Mexico.  She died in 2012 at the age of 96 in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Crusaders for Justice

Homage to the Panthers

Her most famous sculpture:                   Mother and Child

Some links for more Catlett:
National Museum of Women and the Arts :
Exhibit Program in PDF :   
Museum of the African Diaspora :   Contains a full interview with Catlett.
A fabulous blog with huge copies of Catlett's art :     including my favorite:  Sharecropper

eff Harrison
Chief Curator, Chrysler Museum of Art

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