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With so much changing in the world and dreary prognoses scuttling about the news, times have been tough for women of color as we fight against powers that seek to reinstitute sexist, racist, and classist values. But this is not a new struggle, and it is essential to remember that even as we feel the ground shifting beneath our feet, the pillars of feminist movements that came before us hold steady. One such pillar is the legacy of Elizabeth Catlett.
Elizabeth Catlett was a Mexican and African-American sculptor and print-maker who used her art to advocate for civil rights and social change in the United States. The granddaughter of slaves, Elizabeth was a groundbreaking figure in the art world, becoming the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Iowa with an MFA in 1940.
Catlett was awarded a scholarship to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology, only to have it rescinded shortly thereafter upon discovery of her race. This was an all-too-common occurrence for Black scholars in the segregated United States, but Elizabeth didn’t let it extinguish her desire for training and education. She enrolled at Howard University, where she studied under artist Loïs Mailou Jones and philosopher Alain Locke.
I myself studied at a historically Black university, where I received funding and attention that was attuned to my identity as a Black woman. HBCUs are major parts of the communities that they serve, as they were created to give Black students the option to pursue higher education when they were turned away from white schools.
Catlett’s experiences struggling to rise under a racist, sexist system influenced her work greatly, and after traveling to Mexico City to study under a fellowship, she began her work promoting social justice.
“I learned how you use your art for the service of people, struggling people, to whom only realism is meaningful,” she said. This is what made Elizabeth such an incredible icon. Her work represents more than her own personal struggle to overcome prejudice and discrimination. She created for the benefit of the common woman, the women who rise at dawn and care selflessly for their families and communities even as they go without themselves.
She believed in the unity of womanhood to overcome oppression, and her art reflects that spirit of defiance. The women that struggle, the women that work, these were “her people.” In Mexico, she learned that female perseverance transcends race, and the synthesis of art, selflessness, and struggle is a phenomenon common to all women of color.
Elizabeth mobilized her love of the working class to organize rallies in Mexico that protested the inhumane treatment of workers. It was during one such rally that she was arrested by the United States government and charged with being a communist, a label flung around during the McCarthy era to silence voices that spoke for justice and equality.
But Elizabeth Catlett could not be silenced. In response to these charges, she relinquished her United States citizenship and became a full Mexican, where she continued to fight for the rights of the working poor.
Catlett’s work is especially important because its feminist and humanist themes inspired the Black Feminist movement of the late 1960s. Kathleen Edwards, the chief curator at the University of Iowa’s Museum of Art, described her as, “probably the most important female African-American in the United States.” In the current political climate, when we are seeing the aggressive encroachment upon female reproductive rights and minority civil rights, her sculptures stand as an act of conscious rebellion and a testament to intrinsic female majesty.
Elizabeth’s work, exclusively feminine, radiates with the soul and undying strength of Black women. Catlett wielded the uncanny ability to use the grain and lustre of her medium to accentuate the natural curve and sensuality of the female figure. Her sculptures are proud, powerful, and maternal, a combination that continues to reflect the reality of Black female identities. Completed works such as “Mother and Child” (1993) and her prints of “The Negro Woman” (1946-47) and “Sharecropper” (1952) are demonstrative of our lives as raw, tangible realities, absent of the romanticism of Black fetishization. These are women as we are and have always been: beautiful and valid by nature of our existence.
We should look to these works and take pride in our history, knowing that we have shouldered and carried the burdens of every society. When we are tired, we should gaze upon “Triangular Woman” (1994), so that we may be soothed by the repose of a hard-working matriarch. And when we are afraid, raise a fist that clutches the strength of our womanhood, the bond we share, and paths we have still to pave.
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