By Adriana Gomez Licon
ABOVE PHOTO: Sculptor Elizabeth Catlett shown in front of her “Invisible Man” sculpture in New York on Thursday, May 1, 2003. Catlett’s sculpture honoring acclaimed author Ralph Ellison was unveiled Thursday opposite his longtime home in West Harlem.
(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
MEXICO CITY — Sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett, a U.S. expatriate renowned for her dignified portrayals of African-American and Mexican women and who was barred from her home country for political activism during the McCarthy era, has died. She was 96.
Maria Antonieta Alvarez, Catlett’s daughter-in-law, said the artist died Monday in a house in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she had lived since 1976.
Born in Washington, D.C., Catlett moved to Mexico in 1946, became friends with great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and others in his circle, and married Mexican artist Francisco Mora.
She became known for her commitment to winning greater rights for blacks, women and workers in the United States and her adopted country. Catlett witnessed almost every important artistic and social movement of the 20th century and traveled in some of the same illustrious circles as the great American artist Jacob Lawrence and poet Langston Hughes.
She was arrested during a railroad workers’ protest in Mexico City in 1958 and in 1962 the U.S. State Department banned her from returning to the United States for nearly a decade because of her political affiliations.
Working in wood, stone and other natural materials, she produced simple, flowing sculptures of women, children and laborers, and prints of Mexicans and black Americans that she used to promote social justice.
Catlett, born on April 15, 1915, was raised by her mother, a teacher, because her father, who was also a teacher, had died little before she was born. She said she knew from age 6 that she wanted to be an artist.
She attended Howard University where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art and then got her master’s at the University of Iowa where she was student of Grant Wood, painter of iconic “American Gothic.” Wood told his young student to make art about what she knew best.
Catlett took his advice to heart and began making images of strong and beautiful black women, making signature issues of racial identity, family dynamics and social and political struggle.
Studying ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago, she met her first husband, painter Charles White in the early 1940s.
Samella Lewis, author of a book about Catlett, was a student of hers around the same time at Dillard University in New Orleans who was inspired by her activism.
“It was my first time meeting a real aggressive woman in my life,” Lewis said.
Lewis, who has a sculpture of Catlett made with wood from Senegal, recalled how the artist had pushed for her and her students to be let in an exhibit of cubist Pablo Picasso at a museum in a park where blacks were not allowed. She said the artist helped her stay in school and got her a full scholarship to transfer to Hampton University in Virginia.
“My mom used to tell me ‘you listen to Miss Catlett, because she knows what she is talking about,'” Lewis said.
In 1946, Catlett moved to Mexico City and met muralist Diego Rivera and other friends of him. Soon after, she joined a workshop of leftist printmakers and met her husband, Francisco Mora, who was also in the group.
The Mexican National Council for Culture and Arts said that throughout her career Catlett demonstrated “her interest in social justice and the rights of black and Mexican women.”
With its formal beauty and universal themes, Catlett’s artwork drew much of its dynamic form and emotional energy from her investigation of racial and ethnic identity.
Catlett says famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman and singer/civil rights advocate Paul Robeson inspired her.
The smooth, stylized faces she sculpted were less about individual people and more about the dignity and nobility of universal man, woman and child — sculpture that’s meant to comfort, uplift and inspire.
Her prints expressed her lifelong commitment to use art as a tool for social change, often incorporating the slogans (“Black Is Beautiful”) and revolutionary heroes (Angela Davis and Malcolm X) of the civil rights and black power movements.
Catlett is survived by three sons, 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, her family said. The family said her remains would be cremated in a private ceremony in Mexico.