Power exudes from the raised fists in the sculptures “Homage to My Young Black Sisters.” Endurance and dignity from the stark simplicity of the portrait, “Sharecropper.” In all her work, African-American sculptor and graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett celebrated the heroic strength and endurance of African-American and Mexican working-class women, elevating them in societies that often overlooked or ostracized them.
“You can really see life and history unfold in her work,” Isolde Brielmaier, who curated an exhibition of Catlett’s work last year at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, told National Public Radio.
Catlett, a Washington, D.C.-born Harlem Renaissance artist whose politically charged expressionist sculptures and prints and her activism put her at odds with the U.S. government, died April 2 at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. She was 96.
“I am saddened by news that Elizabeth Catlett has passed away. Ms. Catlett was cultural pillar in America, and her artwork tackled complex issues like family dynamics, racial identity, and social and political struggle,” Washington D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown said in a statement. “Her artwork will continue to inspire Americans for years to come. May we all strive to live up to the standard of fortitude, creativity, and originality Ms. Catlett set with her life.”
Born in the District in 1919, Catlett attended Howard University, where she studied design, printmaking and drawing. She later became the first person to obtain a master’s degree in sculpting from the University of Iowa. According to a PBS profile, in 1946 she received a fellowship to travel to Mexico, where she furthered her studies in painting, sculpture and lithography.
Catlett’s work gained in popularity during the turbulent times of the 1960s and ‘70s. Her work, which often captured the Black experience or sought to advance social causes, spoke to a people in search of a racial identity, racial unity, social parity and justice.
“The art form makes you feel something,” Catlett’s oldest son, Franciso Mora Catlett, said in the NPR broadcast. “It alerts or awakens something in you, that’s the important thing about it.”
The African-American artist also agitated in the streets, picketing, protesting and even being arrested in her quest to advance the causes of her people. Eventually, according to her official website, the U.S. State Department identified her as an “undesirable alien,” barring her from visiting the United States for a decade.