Iconic African American Artist, Elizabeth Catlett, Dies at 96

April 5, 2012  |  

Sculptor and printmaker, Elizabeth Catlett died Monday at 96 years old.

Catlett, who has consistently been dubbed one of the most important African American artists of the 20th century dedicated her life to producing art that depicted the African American experience and promoted social justice.

Born on April 15, 1915, in Washington D.C.,  Catlett was the granddaughter of freed slaves. Her father died before she was born and her mother worked as truant officer. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, Catlett experienced her fair share of discrimination living as a black woman in the United States. She was not allowed to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology because she was “colored.” But she went on to Howard University where she studied design and print-making.

After graduation she joined a Depression-era program that provided jobs for struggling artists. There she was exposed to Mexican artists Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias. The men’s political opinions would come to influence Catlett’s art and perhaps her decision to spend a majority of her life living and working in Mexico.

But before her relocation, Catlett taught art at a North Carolina high school. Troubled by the inequality in pay between the white and black teachers, Catlett left to attend graduate school at what is now the University of Iowa. There Catlett said she was shown the first kindness by a white man, her mentor Grant Wood. (You may know Wood’s iconic work “American Gothic”)  It was Wood who suggested Catlett draw from her own culture to create her artwork. She went on to graduate in 1940.

By 1941, Catlett was in Chicago working with the South Side Community Art Center. There, she met her first husband, Charles White. They married and moved to New York but were divorced by the end of the decade.

Still in New York, Catlett joined the faculty at the George Washington Carver School in Harlem.

From there she moved to Mexico City. It was there that she met her future husband Francisco Mora, when he offered to teach her Spanish. (Pretty slick, huh?)


Throughout her career Catlett went against the grain. At a time when black artists were expected to assimilate to a European Standard, Catlett portrayed depictions of black life. Her work would later be known as symbols of the Civil Rights Movement as she often depicted lynchings and beatings of blacks. In “Target,” perhaps her most well known work, Catlett sculpted a black man’s face inside of  a gun target range. Tragically, due to the recent killings of black youth, Catlett’s sculpture still holds weight today.

Catlett also made sure to highlight historical, black heroines like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. But she didn’t stop there. She also focused on the everyday woman. In 1992, she told the St. Petersburg Times, “”I wanted to show the history and strength of all kinds of black women,”

Working women, country women, urban women, great women in the history of the United States.”

Catlett moved to Mexico in 1940 to study ceramics. Her new environment greatly influenced her work as she took on the cause of presenting the struggles of Mexican workers. Although she’d adopted a new focus, Catlett never forgot her African American brothers and sisters. She referred to black and Mexicans as “my two people” and incorporated physical features from each group in her art work.

In Mexico, she was able to gain acceptance she never experienced in the U.S. Throughout the ’60’s she was denied a U.S. visa which stunted the impact she and her work were able to make in the United States.

She leaves behind three sons, Francisco, Juan and David, 10 grandchildren, one of which included America’s Next Top Model Winner, Naima Mora and six great grandchildren.


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