Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
From And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou
Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) was an African-American artist, printmaker and sculptor known for her focus on African-American issues, which often highlighted black female experience. She was born and raised in Washington DC and came from a family of formerly enslaved people. Despite a mid-20th century culture of devastating racism and segregation in the US, Catlett became a highly educated woman and artist. She attended Washington’s Howard University, at which her professors included the artist Lois Mailou Jones, a highly influential figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
Catlett developed her art by focusing on her concerns involving social issues, which contrasted to the US art establishment’s promotion of fashionable genres such as Abstract Expressionism. After moving to Mexico for a period of her life the artist became highly influenced by the political activism of such organisations as the People’s Graphic Arts Workshop. In turn, Catlett saw an opportunity to give a voice through her figurative realist artworks, to the often silent endurance and strength through oppression of her fellow African American women.
In 1946 Catlett created a series of fifteen linocuts entitled The Negro Woman series. Here the artist highlighted inspirational African American women such as Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Also included was Harriet Tubman, another abolitionist who was born into slavery, and responsible for freeing whole families of slaves through her activism with the Underground Railroad. The artist also highlighted Phillis Wheatley in her artworks, celebrating the first published African-American female poet.
However, Catlett included in her focus more anonymous and forgotten women, by creating work with titles such as ‘I have always worked in America’ featuring women doing household chores. In this approach the artist celebrated every African American woman, from those who gave the world songs, those who studied, those who struggled, who organised, to those who feared, in fact all who endured and fought back against the injustices of racism and misogyny.
I have always worked hard in America from The Negro Woman series; 1946 by Elizabeth Catlett
Catlett followed this pattern of celebrating the strength of her sisters throughout her life and work. As a civil rights activist, educator as well as artist, she created work not only reflecting the struggles of various African American social movements, but also stayed true to the feminism which informed her art. From the Chicago Renaissance of the 1940s, to the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1970’s/80’s and beyond, Catlett created art which maintained black female representation and perspective. Utilising themes from motherhood to activism, while producing work such as Mother and Child, 1956 and Homage to My Young Black Sisters, 1968 the artist placed African American women at centre stage, on both a personal and political level.
Mother and Child, 1956 and Homage to My Young Black Sisters, 1968 by Elizabeth Catlett
“Black women have been cast in the role of carrying on the survival of black people through their position as mothers and wives, protection and educating and stimulating children and black men. We can learn from black women. They have had to struggle for centuries. I feel that we have so much more to express and that we should demand to be heard and demand to be seen because we know and feel and can express so much, contribute so much….” Elizabeth Catlett.
The Black Woman Speaks; 1960 by Elizabeth Catlett