De la Isla: Mexico nurtured U.S.-born artist Elizabeth Catlett

Mother and Child by Elizabeth Catlett

By Jose de la Isla
Posted April 11, 2012 at 4:38 p.m.

MEXICO CITY — Elizabeth Catlett died April 2 at age 96 in Cuernavaca, 80 miles south of this capital city.

Most accounts of the U.S.-born artist simply referred to her as an African-American who became a Mexican citizen. A few typecast her as an “important African-American” artist to typify her work in sculpture and printmaking.

She was much more than that.

Mexico’s National Council for Culture and the Arts has described Catlett as an artist who always demonstrated in her art a profound interest “in social justice and the rights of black people and Mexican women.”

An obituary in the Los Angeles Times noted the U.S. government had labeled her an “undesirable alien” in 1959. It mentioned she was briefly held in a roundup of ex-patriots living in Mexico who were suspected of Communist activity. She was denied a U.S. visa throughout the 1960s.

The same obituary quoted her as once telling a St. Petersburg Times journalist that “there’s a different attitude toward art in Mexico. As an artist, you’re greatly admired rather than looked at as something strange.”

Catlett’s best-known prints include “Sharecropper” (1952) and “Malcolm X Speaks for Us” (1969), expressing her lifelong commitment to art as a tool for social change, often incorporating the slogan “Black is beautiful.” Her better-known lithographs include posters of Angela Davis.

Catlett had said she wanted to show the history and strength of women: urban, country, working and great women of history.

Her sculptures include “Dancing Figure” (1961), “The Black Woman Speaks” and “Target” (1970). “Black Unity” (1968) shows a mahogany fist on one side and two African visages on the other. The sculptures “Homage to Black Women Poets” and “Homage to My Young Black Sisters” (both 1968) are red-cedar abstracts of a woman with raised head and fist.

Her biography reveals how, in a sense, that one’s life and work fuse the same way nationality, ethnicity, identity, life mission and talents do.

Elizabeth Catlett was born in 1915 in Washington, D.C., the granddaughter of freed slaves, a math-professor father and truant-officer mother. In the 1930s, she earned her undergraduate degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

She was exposed to the work of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias, both of whom had worked extensively in the United States.

Covarrubias, as an illustrator for The New Yorker and other national magazines in the 1920s and ’30s, had introduced to millions the image of sophisticated jazz-age Negroes and Harlem.

Catlett preferred doing semiabstract sculptures after studying the form as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, earning a master’s in fine art in 1940. She sculpted “Negro Mother and Child” for her graduate thesis and won first prize in the 1940 Columbia Exposition in Chicago.

That same year, she chaired the art department of New Orleans’ Dillard University. Later in the 1940s, she moved to Mexico City to study ceramics. She added struggles of Mexican workers to her commitment to African-American causes. She referred to “my two people,” even blending their physical features in her art.

She found like-minded spirits in the Taller de Grafica Popular, a collective known for mass-producing posters supporting populist causes. She met renowned artist Francisco Mora here and married him. He died in 2002.

In Mexico, Catlett gained an acceptance she had not known at home, the same as other U.S. artists, writers and musicians such as composer Aaron Copland have experienced. She continued championing black causes even after becoming a Mexican citizen in 1962.

Perhaps this has to do with artists having a responsibility, like that of writers, to show the quest for justice, catch individual temperament and mood, and expose their color and shape.

Jose de la Isla is a columnist for Hispanic Link News Service. Email him at

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