Our cover this month, Elizabeth Catlett’s “My Right is a Future of Equality with Other Americans” (12 in. by 9 in.), sold for $1,200 at Weschler’s African-American Fine Art Sale in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 26, 2016. According to Catlett, the significance of her work is in the social messages conveyed rather than in the aesthetic appeal. Despite this declaration, Catlett is well renowned for her prints and abstract sculptures.
The granddaughter of freed slaves, Catlett was an activist and a feminist—successfully becoming a respected graphic artist and sculptor at a time when an art career for an African-American woman was implausible. She strove to convey the African-American experience of her generation through her art, having herself faced discrimination—she was accepted into the Carnegie Institute of Technology but refused admission when the school discovered she was African American. (The injustice was brought to the attention of the school’s president in 2007, and Catlett was presented with an honorary Doctorate degree in 2008.)
In 1946, she received a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship to travel and study in Mexico, where she worked as a graphic artist with the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a collective dedicated to using art to promote revolutionary social causes. While residing in Mexico, she studied sculpture and shifted to working primarily in that medium, though never completely abandoning printmaking. Her best-known sculptures depict African-American women as strong, powerful and confident.
Catlett’s talent and dedication to following her passion, despite the realities of her time, earned her well-deserved recognition and respect, empowering younger African-American women to follow in her footsteps.