“Base what you’re doing on something constructive that has to do with all of us (African-Americans/ Black folk) and not just on money and buying things.” -Elizabeth Catlett Mora
“Art is only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people.” –Elizabeth Catlett Mora
April 29, 2011. It was a beautiful spring Friday and I was at Columbia University attending “Towards An Intellectual History of Black Women”– this no nonsense, spectacular conference on the music, art, and literary, religious & academic traditions of Black women. Elizabeth Alexander was to deliver the keynote that night. I was amped! Having long been a fan way before her poetry reading at President Obama’s Inauguration, I had been digging this sister for her book of poems “The Venus Hottentot,” which I discovered in college more than a decade back while writing my thesis on Black Female Rappers, Body Image & the Erotic in Hiphop. It was everything I needed to complete my thesis so nothing was keeping me from this keynote. That is until I heard about an event in the Bronx where another Elizabeth would be speaking. Word on the street, the Internet and on all Black artistic hotlines was Elizabeth Catlett would be making a rare appearance at the Bronx Museum of the Arts to talk about her work, which at the time, was the highlight of an exhibit showing there. Typical night in NYC where everything monumentally historic is going down at the same time. It was too much for my art fiend, poetry-loving mind to comprehend. I could NOT believe that the artist that made “Sharecropper” was going to be in the Boogie Down—my hometown! One thing though that I soon realized was that not only was Mama Catlett rarely in the US, I knew she was very old and this could very well be her last appearance. I had missed Nina at Carnegie Hall and then soon after she died, I was not missing Elizabeth Catlett.
My coral necklace broke as I was heading into the D-train station. My precious beads went everywhere, but three men helped me recover all 19 beads and one of them even gave me an envelope to put them in. I took this as a sign… of course. The journey would be riddled with obstacles, but I would be surprised by the kindness and love of others at the end. Me and my signs! When I entered the lecture hall at the Museum, I could not believe how many people were in that room. It was packed, overflowing with folks from Harlem, Queens, Jersey and even Crystal came from all the way from Brooklyn. Like me, Imani Uzuri broke out of the conference to make her way uptown. Her face was the first I saw as I ascended the stairs. “Grrrl, she ain’t even here,” she said with an uneven grin. What? She explained Mrs. Catlett-Mora was not feeling well and had to cancel her trip to NYC and would not make her appearance. Yo, in that moment I felt like my coral necklace. Broken. Then I went downstairs and saw the show. I saw her sculptures for the first time up close and my spirit soared. Elizabeth Catlett is a treasure and not just to and for Black folks, but to anyone who believes in the power of art to empower and educate and who seeks, above all things, liberation. One of my favorite pieces “Angela Libre,” which features another one of my heroes Angela Davis just seemed to vibrate on the wall. I stared at it for like 10 minutes. Anyway, I’m so sad that I never got the chance to see her in person, but glad that I had the sweet communion of her works and her friends and her protégés to anoint that Friday evening. I won’t soon forget it. Below is a brief bio of her life. Rest in sweet peace Elizabeth.
Born in Washington in 1915, a grandchild of slaves, Elizabeth Catlett studied science at Howard University, then plunged into art with sculpture and prints blending Socialist Realism, modernist abstraction and African influences. In 1940 Catlett became the first student to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture at the University of Iowa. While there, she was influenced by American landscape painter Grant Wood, who urged students to work with the subjects they knew best. For Catlett, this meant Black people, and especially Black women, and it was at this point that her work began to focus on African-Americans. Her piece “Mother and Child” (done in 1939 for her thesis), won first prize in sculpture at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940.
In 1946 Catlett received a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship that allowed her to travel to Mexico where she immersed herself in the politically charged atmosphere of Taller de Gráfica Popular– the People’s Graphic Arts Workshop, a group of printmakers organized in 1936 and dedicated to using their art to promote social change. There she and other artists created a series of linoleum cuts on black heroes. They did posters, leaflets, collective booklets, illustrations for textbooks, posters and illustrations for the construction of schools, against illiteracy in Mexico. After marrying the artist Francisco Mora (1922-2002), she made that country her home, with periodic returns to the United States.
Elizabeth Catlett-Mora died on April 2, 2012 at the age of 96.