I have always wanted my art to service my people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.
Graphic artist and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett was best known for her depictions of the African-American experience in the 20th century, often focusing on the experience of the black woman.
Catlett was born and raised in Washington, D.C. to parents who worked in the education field and was the granddaughter of slaves. After high school, Catlett was awarded a scholarship to attend the Carnegie Institute of technology, but the offer was rescinded on the basis of race. She then enrolled at Howard University and later went on to become the first student to graduate with an MFA from the University of Iowa. After graduate school, Catlett spent a few years teaching in New Orleans and Harlem.
Her membership in the Communist Party and her involvement with leftist politics and labor protests in Mexico during the height of the McCarthy era made her a target of U.S. Government surveillance. The U.S. State Department declared her an “undesirable alien,” and she was banned from coming back into the United States for several years. The intimidation tactics didn’t stop her work. Catlett became a Mexican citizen in 1962, and continued to champion the black struggle in the US and the struggle to improve the lives of Mexican workers. Her U.S citizenship was granted back in 2002.
Catlett’s artwork highlighted the struggle of African-Americans and demonstrated issues such as segregation and the fight for civil rights. Catlett worked well into her nineties. In her later years, her reputation as an artist grew significantly. Exhibitions of Catlett’s work appear in galleries and museums around the world.