Elizabeth Catlett, the much-revered sculptor who eventually gave up her American citizenship to live in Mexico and died recently at the age of 96, will be cremated in a private ceremony in her adopted country.
Catlett was best known for her depictions of strong Black women in her sculpture, prints, drawings and paintings. She was generally considered one of the most important African American artists of her time.
Born in Washington, D.C., on April 15, 1915, she was the youngest of three children. Her father, John Catlett, who had taught at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., and in the Washington school system, died before she was born. Her mother, Mary, was a truant officer. Like her father, Catlett also became an educator, and would remain so for much of her life.
Out of high school, Catlett won a scholarship to Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, but the school refused to honor it when it was discovered that she was Black. Instead, she enrolled at Howard University in her hometown. After her first semester, she was awarded a full scholarships to complete her studies. She graduated with a honors and a bachelor’s degree in art.
She then studied under popular artist Grant Wood at the University of Iowa, where she was awarded a masters of fine arts degree.
After earning her master’s degree, she went to New Orleans to teach at Dillard University. While at Dillard, the Delgado Museum of Art was having an exhibition of the works of artist Pablo Picasso. Catlett desperately wanted her students to see the exhibit, but the museum was in a park where Blacks were not allowed. Still, Catlett was able to arrange a visit on a day when the museum was not open to the public.
“It was my first time meeting a real aggressive woman in my life,” artist-historian Samella Lewis, who was a student of Catlett’s at that time, told the Washington Post.
(Lewis went on to make her own mark on both art and art education. She has worked as professor of art history at Scripps College in Claremont, becoming the college’s first tenured African American professor. She also helped to found the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles in 1976 and established the scholarly journal International Review of African-American Art that same year, according to The History Makers website.)
While studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, Catlett met and married artist Charles W. White in the early 1940s. White would go on to international fame. His realistic drawings and paintings would most often depict Blacks of spirituality and nobility. However, the marriage lasted but five years, ending shortly after the two traveled to Mexico.
Catlett’s art always maintained a strong commitment to justice and social change.
“Like other artists and activists, Ms. Catlett felt the political tensions of the McCarthy years,” said the New York Times. “The TGP [Taller de Grafica Popular, an art collective in Mexico that supported populist causes] was thought to have ties with the Communist Party; Ms. Catlett never joined the party, but White, her first husband had been a member, and she was closely watched by the United States Embassy.”
“In 1949, she was arrested, along with other expatriates, during a railroad workers’ strike in Mexico City. Eventually she gave up her American citizenship and was declared an undesirable alien by the State Department,” said the Times.
Catlett is survived by her three sons, all by her second husband, artist Francisco Mora, who died in 2002.