In my previous sports media life, I spent a great amount of time with lists. Sports fans are obsessed with lists.
Top 25 college football and basketball teams. Top 5 all-time “this;” 10 worst “that.” Players, games, uniforms, arenas, if it exists in sports, fans want to rank it against all others.
Fortunately, the art world doesn’t suffer from this craving to numerically compare everything.
Upon seeing the exhibition “Elizabeth Catlett: Points of Contact” at the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art, I was left pondering this question, however: who were the greatest artists to work in both three dimensions and two?
I was acquainted with Catlett’s iconic figurative sculpture, but knew nothing of her powerful, activist printmaking. “Discovering” Catlett’s (b. 1915, Washington, D.C.; d. 2012, Cuernavaca, Mexico) astonishing range to create equally remarkable three-dimensional sculpture and two dimensional prints, I began thinking about art history’s top “dual threats.”
Any such list would surely begin with Michelangelo. Western artists Fredric Remington and C.M. Russell brilliantly captured their genre in paintings and sculpture. Picasso would have to be included. Jean Dubuffett. Catlett.
Catlett’s sculptures have received wide acclaim; her prints were a revelation to me. Both feature the Black figure, primarily women, but where Catlett’s sculptures are blocky, thick and rounded. Her prints, in contrast, are finely detailed and crisp. Sharp lines, not smooth curves, define the faces.
Mothers and children. Laborers. Ordinary people presented with extraordinary struggles. The Black women in Catlett’s prints are strong, caring, intelligent, like the artist herself.
A transformation in Mexico
Catlett was introduced to printmaking in Mexico by her second husband, artist Francisco Mora. After a brief marriage to the artist Charles White, Catlett and Mora embarked on a 55-year relationship that would see them inspire each other to create their best work and life.
Catlett first visited Mexico in 1946 thanks to $2,000 from a fellowship. The fellowship provided money to travel anywhere in the world she wanted to study. Paris was her first choice, but two-grand wouldn’t stretch that far.
“She came to Mexico and found this super-effervescent scene and she loved it,” Humberto Moro, SCAD MOA adjunct curator and co-organizer of “Elizabeth Catlett: Points of Contact,” told me on a press preview of the exhibition.
Catlett returned to the U.S. for a couple months before moving back to Mexico – Cuernavaca, 60 miles south of Mexico City – for good in 1947. That was the same year she married Moya.
“She was taken by the environment in which politics and art were so merged and how art, at the time in Mexico City, was at the service of politics,” Moro explained of Catlett’s love affair with the city. “She encountered (arts collective) Taller de Gráfica Popular (The People’s Print Workshop), a printmaking workshop which was active for almost 45 years. She became almost a second-generation Taller de Gráfica Popular with her new partner Francisco Mora who was a painter and an excellent printmaker.”
Primarily a sculptor in the U.S., Catlett added printmaking to her repertoire in Mexico.
Moro, who lives in Mexico City, sourced many of the prints on view in the exhibition directly from Catlett’s home where one her and Moya’s three sons still lives. Many have never been shown publicly before.
Struggle Knows No Borders
The granddaughter of enslaved people from North Carolina, Catlett was awarded a scholarship to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh — only to have the offer rescinded on the basis of her race. She then enrolled at Howard University and went on to study painting under Grant Wood (American Gothic) at the University of Iowa, becoming the first Black woman to graduate with an M.F.A. from the college.
“Elizabeth Catlett had the most fantastic life, and a very challenging one too,” Moro said. “She was obviously marginalized because she was a woman, because she was black, but 60, 70 years ago she was already fighting for Black women.”
She fought for the working people of Mexico as well, “(portraying) the commonalities between Mexican working class people and African American people of hard labor, child labor, homelessness, hunger, mothers caring for their children and the beautiful physical attributes that until then were stigmatized as something as undesirable as to what artistic aesthetic should conform to be,” in the words of her granddaughter.
Walking the exhibition, spending time with the images, this was my takeaway: What if Catlett’s images of Black women were the images shown to white American for the past 70 years?
Caring, humane images? Not wailing victims of drive-by shootings on the news. Not junkies with needles in their arms as Nancy Reagan told my generation to “Just say no.” Not her husband’s “welfare queens.”
Strong, self-sufficient, responsible Black women who loved their children – just like white women – who took care of their families – just like white women – who possessed physical beauty – just like white women.
If those were the predominant images of Black women shared by American mass media over the past 70 years – and examples of them were plentiful – Black women wouldn’t still be marginalized today.
But lifting Black women wasn’t ever the point, was it?
Catlett recognized this which is why in 1962 she renounced her American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen. Doing so was also necessary for her to participate in Mexican politics. This resulted in her being kidnapped – in front of her children – by both the U.S. and Mexican governments according to Moro. Remember, this period was the Cold War and an educated expat Black woman espousing “radical” ideas about social and economic equality was considered very dangerous – still is.
Catlett had her U.S. citizenship restored in 2002 and the exhibition highlights how she connected the social rights movement in the United States and the muralism and social realism movements in Mexico City which, from different places and perspectives, both fought for marginalized and exploited communities.
“(What) the show wanted to do is reveal the complexity of Elizabeth Catlett as a dual national of the United States and Mexico City,” Moro said. “There’s a lot of exhibitions that have been done around the work of Elizabeth Catlett, some of which have put her in conversation with contemporary artists, but only with Black artists; they see her as a black artist, which she is, but she’s not only that, and she wanted to be acknowledged as such. It was one of her dreams to have exhibitions with Mexican artists and as a Mexican national.”
“Points of Contact” displays Catlett’s sculptures and prints with contemporary works by living artists from both the U.S. and Mexico.
A rare, large, color artist proof of her iconic Sharecropper (linoleum cut print, 1952) – a copy of which belongs to the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – stands as a highlight of the exhibition.
“Catlett depicts the sharecropper woman as seen from below, larger than life, focusing on her head (representing knowledge, spirit, and soul) rather than her body (exploited by the landowner and labor),” wall text for the image at SCAD MOA reads. It continues, “The sharecropper’s careworn face is incised with forceful dynamic hatching to convey the physical realities of her class position; her skin tone is hand-colored to emphasize the pride of her race and her textured broad-brimmed straw hat, which was commonly worn by sharecroppers, takes on the shape of a halo to honor Catlett’s female ancestors’ endurance.”
Another print, A Torture of Mothers (1967), depicts the killing of a Black boy by police, a heartbreaking reminder of how little progress has been made in America toward achieving the genuine equality among races Catlett’s work strived for.
“Elizabeth Catlett: Points of Contact” will be on view at SCAD MOA through January 30, 2022.Black artistElizabeth CatlettFemale artistMexicoprints