Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012) was exiled from the United States due to the political themes she explored in her art. Her legacy is one of cultural belonging and activism that provokes conversations about the role of art among continental American neighbors: the U.S. and Mexico.
“Ni de aquí, ni de allá” is a common saying amongst Latinxs with ties to Spanish speaking Latin American and Caribbean nations. The phrase translates to “Neither from here, neither from there.” It articulates a sense of displacement that occurs when belonging is shared between two places and not being fully accepted in either because of this hybridity. Contrastingly, Elizabeth Catlett found a way to be “de aquí y de allá,” “from here and from there.” She harmonized her African American identity with an adopted Mexican identity through her life, art, and activism that resulted in an embrace from her two homes.
Elizabeth Catlett was an African American Mexican artist and activist who resided in Mexico for over sixty years. Catlett was a mother to three children, raised in Mexico, and a foremother to the generations of artists she inspired. She is cited as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century and her legacy is felt in the United States, Mexico, and beyond. Her relationship to Mexico, where she produced most of her work and developed intimate alliances, illuminates a larger synergy between Mexican and African American art, activism, and culture. Catlett’s life and art is a testament to cultural belonging and solidarity among oppressed peoples.
Catlett was born on April 15, 1915, in Washington, D.C., at Freedmen’s Hospital (known today as Howard University Hospital). Her maternal and paternal grandparents were born enslaved, a family legacy that influenced her art. Catlett knew from a young age that she wanted to be an artist. After Carnegie Mellon rescinded her acceptance into their undergraduate program due to her race, she attended Howard University and graduated with a BS in Art in 1935. In 1939, she began graduate studies in art at the University of Iowa, where she shifted her focus from painting to sculpture and became the first woman to receive an MFA in sculpture from the University. During her graduate studies at Iowa, her mentor, Grant Wood, encouraged her to “take as her subject what she knew best.” Catlett decided to make Black people—especially Black women—her primary subjects.
Catlett’s pieces capture personal and political sentiments about the experiences and histories of Black women. Motherhood is a consistent theme throughout her career that started as early as graduate school. Her master’s thesis at the University of Iowa, a limestone sculpture titled Negro Mother and Child (1940), exemplifies this. In the sculpture’s accompanying thesis paper, Catlett explained her sentiments for creating the sculpture, “The implications of motherhood, especially Negro motherhood, are quite important to me, as I am a Negro as well as a woman.” Several of her works iconize well known African American heroines including Harriet Tubman, Phillis Wheatley, and Sojourner Truth to memorialize their activist legacies. These works on African American heroines were part of Catlett’s most famous series titled “The Black Woman (formerly the Negro Woman),” which she began in 1946 while living in Mexico.
Catlett is part of a larger network of overlap and exchange between African American and Mexican artists. For example, Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias illustrated the cover of Langston Hughes’ book, The Weary Blues. Covarrubias was one of Mexico’s leading muralists and one of many Mexican artists involved in the Harlem Renaissance. He was part of an influential artist collective in Mexico, Taller Gráfica Popular (People’s Graphic Workshop), which Catlett joined. Several African American artists, including Catlett, took interest in Mexican art and social movements.
Catlett and several other African American artists worked and apprenticed with Diego Rivera, a leader in Mexican muralism. Charles Alston frequently met with Rivera while Rivera created the famous 1934 Man at the Crossroads mural at Rockefeller Center in New York. In 1940, Thelma Johnson Streat briefly assisted Rivera on his Pan American Unity mural in San Francisco. Her mural Medicine and Transportation shows parallels with the theme of industrialization often seen in Rivera’s murals, but adds an abstract vibrancy characteristic to her style.
In the early 1940’s, Catlett studied alongside Raúl Anguiano, one of the founders of the Taller Gráfica Popular, at the Art Students League in New York. Anguiano introduced Catlett to the Taller’s method of working in series, which fueled her interest to visit Mexico. In 1946, Catlett traveled to Mexico City to learn more about the government funded project that populated the country with public murals after the Mexican Revolution to promote pride, nationalism, and industrialization. This project also motivated several of the previously mentioned African American artists to work with Mexican artists and visit Mexico. Many Mexican artists used their murals to communicate political messages.
Captured by the artistic energy, Catlett established permanent residence in Mexico in 1947 and joined the Taller. The Taller cultivated sociopolitical art and shared the post-revolutionary political sentiments of the muralism movement. The group of artists commonly used wood and linoleum block prints in addition to creating prints on paper. The artists printed on cheap paper and in large quantities to facilitate mass distribution. These inexpensive methods allowed the work of the artists to reach broader audiences. Creating art that is politically conscious and accessible was a core belief of the Taller and shared by Catlett. Working with the Taller allowed Catlett to blend Mexican techniques with African American history through her art. In addition to creating “The Black Woman” graphite and paper series at the Taller, she used the linoleum printing technique she learned there to create one of her most famous pieces, Sharecropper.
These works highlight the historical significance of African American women, but interestingly, use a technique prevalent throughout Mexico at the time. Thematically, Catlett also explored the woes of Mexican people in addition to African Americans. At the Taller, she created more than 70 works, many of which focused on the experiences of Mexican women and children.
We were concerned not only with problems in Mexico; the problems of whatever oppressed people, colonial or semicolonial, were of concern to us.—Elizabeth Catlett
From “Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico” by Melanie Herzog (2005)
Mexico and Mexican culture were integral to Catlett’s artistry; however, Catlett also engaged in Mexican life and community outside of just artistic techniques. She was an activist. In the late 1950s, she was arrested in Mexico City for participating in the Union of Railroad Workers strike. Catlett also integrated into Mexican life professionally. In 1958, she became a Professor of Sculpture at the National School of Fine Arts at National Autonomous University of Mexico. Eventually, Catlett became head of the Sculpture Department, the first woman to hold the position. She worked at the University until her retirement in 1975.
In 1962, Elizabeth Catlett became a Mexican citizen. That same year, she was declared an “undesirable alien” to the U.S. for her political affiliations with the Taller. The U.S. declared the Taller a “communist front organization” and barred the entry of its artists into the U.S. Nevertheless, Catlett frequently sent her work to the U.S. with friends who visited her in Mexico and her work was sought after for display in the U.S. during her exile. In a 1971 interview reflecting on her exile, she vulnerably stated, “It’s true, from the legal point of view I am a Mexican citizen; but how will some consul, some ambassador, some bureaucrat, some president be able to erase the color of my blood, erase my twenty-some years of life as a Black citizen of the U.S. where I went to segregated schools, where I travelled in the back of the bus reserved for Blacks, where I sat in stations, in theatres, in restaurants in the section that said negroes only!?”
In 1971, the U.S. granted Catlett a visa to visit the Studio Museum in Harlem for her solo exhibit. This was her first time in the U.S. in ten years. In 2002, her U.S. citizenship was reinstated though she lived the remainder of her life in Mexico. As a U.S.-born Black woman in Mexico, Catlett was acutely aware of Mexican racial demographics, specifically the invisibility of Black Mexicans. Despite her network of African American and Mexican artists, Catlett did not find artist communities that centered on Black Mexican history or identity. This erasure is in part due to Mexico’s colonial legacy and twentieth century government efforts to promote a unified sense of Mexicanness rooted in Mestizaje. Mestizaje means miscegenation, specifically used in Mexico to describe mixed indigenous and white European ancestry. Catlett called Africanity “the mother culture of Mexico” due to the presence of Africans in Mexico’s ancient Olmec civilization. She pushed back against the erasure of Blackness and promotion of Mestizaje. The strong presence of African ancestry prevalent in Mexican art often inspired her.
Negro es Bello II shows the duality of Catlett’s African American and Mexican identities. The faces that resemble African masks on this ink on rag paper print incorporate Africanity. Rows of black panthers, a symbol of the U.S. Black Power Movement, are arranged in pale orange circles that resemble political buttons. These button-like circles align with the black and white mask-like faces. The phrase “Black is Beautiful” is on the circumference of the circles. Drawing on the Spanish speaking context in which she was immersed, Catlett translated this popular phrase to Spanish for the title of the print. Negro es Bello II was part of Catlett’s 1970 solo exhibit at Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City titled Experiencia Negra (Black Experience). This print fuses her Mexican, African American, and Black identities. All are intertwined.
Catlett’s dual identities are embraced and respected. Her inclusion in the seminal 2006 exhibit, The African Presence in México: From Yanga to the Present is one example. This critically acclaimed exhibit traveled to five U.S. cities with large Black and Mexican populations, including the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. The exhibit even exhibited in Monterrey and Veracruz, Mexico. Catlett’s inclusion in this exhibit speaks to her integration and impact on Mexican art and culture as both an African American and part of the African Diaspora. In 2010, in celebration of the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution, The Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., Catlett’s birth city, hosted an exhibit on Catlett’s work.
In 2012, Elizabeth Catlett passed away in her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, surrounded by family. Her legacy is still felt today. In 2019, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore honored Catlett with a solo exhibit. She has received a Lifetime Achievement Award in contemporary sculpture from the International Sculpture Center, the Art Institute of Chicago Legends and Legacy Award, and honorary doctorates from Carnegie Mellon (the same school that denied her undergraduate admittance) and Pace University. New Orleans, Louisiana, has made her an honorary citizen and Berkley, California, has an Elizabeth Catlett week.
“I am inspired by Black people and Mexican people, my two peoples.“—Elizabeth Catlett
Ebony Magazine, 1970
Even with her prestigious accolades, Catlett’s biggest impact is her legacy as an artist who created boldly for her “two peoples.”