The graphic arts have often been used to promote social change or as a direct medium for artistic commentary on deplorable social conditions. Unlike painting, which produces a unique object, printmaking by its very nature generates multiples to be spread among the people. The 20th century produced a number of artists who have exploited printmaking in this way without straying from their own aesthetic impulses. From the great German Expressionist artist Kathe Kollwitz, who visualized the devastation of war and famine on women and children; to Ben Shahn’s lyrical calls for dignity and respect; to the poster-makers in Czechoslovakia who helped bring on the Velvet Revolution; to Sue Coe’s pictures demanding change in the way animals are treated, printmakers have a long tradition of bold statement and quiet agitation.
Among the greatest of these artistic agitators is Elizabeth Catlett. The work of this extraordinary woman spans two-thirds of the 20th century and now continues in the 21st, and a wide-ranging selection of it is currently on view at the North Carolina Central University Art Museum. The exhibition’s 70 pieces include prints from as early as 1945 and as late as 2000, as well as a few sculptures that only hint at the importance of Catlett’s sculptural work.
Elizabeth Catlett: Master Printmaker was organized by the museum’s director, Kenneth Rodgers, from the Moore Energy Resources Elizabeth Catlett Collection. This group of Catlett’s works is part of a much larger collection of art by black Americans put together by the Rev. Douglas E. Moore. Moore is an ordained minister and civil rights activist who thrilled to Catlett’s images decrying racial injustice and the misery of poverty. When the Rev. Moore took his activism into the money-making arena, he also began to collect Catlett’s work, which in the exhibition’s catalog he says “captures the passion of my soul and yearning for social justice and freedom for Black people.” Catlett’s powerful imagery will resonate with any soul of any race who yearns for freedom and justice, and any eye that appreciates the refinements of design and technique will rejoice in her lithographs and linocuts.
Elizabeth Catlett is widely claimed as an American artist, but she has in fact been a Mexican citizen for nearly 40 years. Catlett was born in 1915, in Washington, D.C. Her grandparents had been enslaved, but her parents were both educated professionals of many talents–her father taught mathematics at Tuskegee Institute. After his untimely death, Catlett’s mother scraped together a family living with menial labor. Her experience doubtless influenced some of Catlett’s later imagery. After studying with the extraordinary faculty at Howard University’s art department and graduating with honors in 1935, Catlett gave Durham a claim to fame by coming to teach at Hillside High School. She also taught four seventh-grade classes and supervised the art education for eight elementary schools. For this she received $59 per month. Catlett was also getting an education herself in Durham–in discrimination, activism and realpolitik. She had discovered the discrepancy in pay between white and black teachers and actively worked to close that gap–and was shocked not to receive support from such black leaders as James Shepard, head of what is now NCCU, or the young Thurgood Marshall, in town on a case. The men had their eyes on a different prize, and women’s pay would have to wait.
Catlett soon left Durham for Iowa, where she studied with Grant Wood and took up sculpture, becoming the first student to receive an MFA degree from the University of Iowa, before going on to study ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1941, she began teaching, and in 1942, her work began receiving prizes, which have continued to flow in throughout her long career.
In 1945, Catlett received a Julius Rosenwald Foundation fellowship to study in Mexico. She had been introduced to the work of the revolutionary Mexican muralists at Howard, and once in Mexico, found the country and its artistic possibilities to her liking. She settled there in 1946, working at the Taller de Gráfica Popular and later heading the sculpture department at the National School of Fine Arts in Mexico City. After marrying Mexican artist Francisco Mora, she produced a family, along with hundreds of prints and sculptures, and became a Mexican citizen in 1962. Her work has for many years been exhibited extensively in Mexico and the United States, and she has completed a number of large sculptural commissions.
The exhibition opens with a straight punch to the gut–“A special fear for my loved ones,” a small linocut from 1946. Here is the “strange fruit.” A black man lies on the ground, the noose tight about his neck. Pairs of feet stand on the rope, holding the man down, ready to kick, ready to kill. The exhibition moves through some of Catlett’s better-known images, such as those from the Negro Woman series, and into some lesser-known aspects of her work. There is a bold “Homage to the Panthers” from 1970 and a wonderful “Angela Libre” showing several heads, each in a bright halo of color, of Angela Davis when her hair was at its widest glory. There are seemingly nonpolitical late lithographs of women and children that sing on the wall, and an arresting piece titled “Begonia Leaf” that combines a lithographic portrait and a monoprint image on the same sheet. But all circles back to Catlett’s great themes: The most recent work here is called “Door of Justice.”
Some political or socially themed work loses its value after its time has passed, but Catlett’s oeuvre–like that of Kathe Kollwitz–will never fade because at bedrock it is about humanity. Beneath the particulars of the incidents illustrated lies Catlett’s loving knowledge of human beauty, and passion and dignity. When she shows us the ugly things–the disrespect, the torture, the murder, the loss, waste and abuse–we believe her, because it is her art to have also included the strength and goodness as a foil. Catlett’s subject matter has been women and children, workers and freedom fighters. Most of these are black or Mexican, but most of all they are people, and only a heart of stone would be unmoved by them. They are the best of us, and their sorrows, fears and rages should be our own.