Elizabeth Catlett ‘Homage to Black Women Poets’

White, male and violent.

A survey of American monuments released in September of 2021 quantified what observation bears out. Support for – and promotion of – the nation’s history of white nationalism, colonialism, violence and patriarchy are reinforced by thousands of public sculptures coast-to-coast.

Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Christopher Columbus lead the way among the 50,000 monuments catalogued by the National Monument Audit, the first comprehensive study of America’s public memorials. Slaveholders vastly outnumber women. Or African Americans. Or Native Americans. Or all three of those groups combined. In fact, among the top 50 individual figures represented in U.S. monuments, Confederate generals outnumber women.

This struck me when visiting the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art in October of 2021 to review its fall program of exhibitions. One exhibit, and one artwork in particular, have stayed with me.

“Elizabeth Catlett: Points of Contact,” through January 30, 2022, centers around her 1984 mahogany sculpture Homage to Black Women Poets. Catlett (b. 1915, Washington, D.C.; d. 2012, Cuernavaca, Mexico) depicts a proud, resolute Black woman, fist raised triumphantly and defiantly skyward. Strong, bold, courageous.

The sculpture belongs to SCAD Museum of Art’s permanent collection, having initially been commissioned for a jazz album cover by celebrated patron of Black artists and Savannah resident Walter Evans. The Catlett exhibition can be seen in the Evans Center for African American studies. In addition to the sculpture, a series of preparatory sketches and models for the work are on display.

Elizabeth Catlett, Homage to Black Women Poets, 1984. Mahogany. SCAD Museum of Art.
Elizabeth Catlett, Homage to Black Women Poets, 1984. Mahogany. SCAD Museum of Art.

Seeing Homage to Black Women Poets for the first time, I was immediately reminded of its likeness to the Statue of Liberty. I was immediately reminded of the monuments study I had read the previous week. I was reminded of Savannah’s Calhoun square – named for as vicious a racist as ever served public office in this country – and the 48-foot-tall Civil War dedicated obelisk in the city’s Forsyth Park which backgrounds countless photographs and postcards. I was reminded of Georgia’s Stone Mountain which depicts Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, the nation’s most prominent Confederate – and thereby racist, white nationalist, pro-slavery and seditionist – monument. I was reminded of Stacy Abrams, the Georgia politician and activist who rallied Black voter turnout in the 2020 election and whose efforts may have saved the Republic.

In an instant, all of this raced through my mind in front of Homage to Black Women Poets.

This image is the Statue of Liberty for the 21st century. It presents an ideal to strive for.

Its title should be tweaked to Homage to Black Women Voters in honor of Abrams, the historic courage of Black women voters, and how their votes served as a firebreak to white nationalism and white supremacy in the 2020 election – both in Georgia and nationally.

Homage to Black Women Voters should be produced as a monument and placed prominently in Savannah, or Atlanta, or both, presenting a Black, female, peaceful counterbalance to the preponderance of white, male and violent monuments in both cities. That would be a memorial fitting of reverence. An inspirational figure representative of America’s true history.

Elizabeth Catlett, Homage to Black Women Poets, 1984. Mahogany. SCAD Museum of Art.
Elizabeth Catlett, Homage to Black Women Poets, 1984. Mahogany. SCAD Museum of Art.

Elizabeth Catlett and Sanford Biggers

The last time I toured SCAD MOA was in March of 2021. At the time I considered Sanford Biggers’ 2020 marble sculpture Lady Interbellum the most powerful artwork I’d seen that year. Six months later, my opinion hasn’t changed.

Another Black artist. Another sculpture. Lady Interbellum then on view not 20 feet from where Homage to Black Women Poets stands now. A testament to the artists and the curatorial power of the folks at SCAD MOA.

Art that sticks to your ribs. Art that makes an impact. Art that changes the way you see and think about the world.

Sanford Biggers,' 'Lady Interbellum,' (2020). White marble on custom cedar plinth.
Sanford Biggers,’ ‘Lady Interbellum,’ (2020). White marble on custom cedar plinth.

Lady Interbellum would make for a powerful public monument in its own right – “Interbellum” a play on “Antebellum,” a reference to the time period prior to the Civil War in the South. Put that on display along Savannah’s riverfront, or in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, or the Battery in Charleston or Downtown Nashville, Jacksonville, Memphis, Dallas or Charlotte.

Doing so wouldn’t absolve these places of their history, nor correct America’s numerous problems; what putting Homage to Black Women Poets or Lady Interbellum on view as prominent public monuments would do is signal to American citizens – of all colors – that the nation’s history and future are as Black as they are white, that a century’s long era of monument as racial antagonism is over, that a story of nationhood beyond Lincoln, Washington and Columbus will finally be told.

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