Friday, July 17, 2015

About Art and Activism

I have always thought that new and different 
is a product of creativity and not the objective.
Art is communication.

Elizabeth Catlett

For the African American sculptor, printmaker, educator and social activist, Elizabeth Catlett has used her art to promote the aspirations of those she called ‘my people’; African Americans and Mexican working-class women.

As the New York Times’ Karen Rosenberg reported her as saying “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.”

Raised by a widowed mother and ex-slave grandparents in Washington DC, Catlett experiences underscored her sense of injustice. From being arrested as a teenager for protesting against lynching on the steps of the American Supreme Court to being refused admission to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology because of her color.

She subsequently obtained a BFA from Howard University and her MFA from the University of Iowa. Upon graduation she started her career as an arts educator and whilst teaching at Dillard University in New Orleans in the early 1940’s she managed to sneak a group of art history students into a Picasso exhibition at the white only Delgado Museum.

As she told the Sculpture Magazine “With this exhibition I had an opportunity to talk to these students about what art is…I went up with them and they’re looking at a rooster, and they’re saying, ‘That’s not a rooster’; I said, ‘Well, that’s not the way a rooster looks, that’s the way Picasso feels about a rooster. In the first place, we all know it’s not a rooster, it’s a painting’... I thought it was horrible that these kids had never been to an art museum, and that’s one of my purposes. I want to get black people into museums.

In 1946 Catlett moved to Mexico on a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship and in 1962 became a Mexican citizen. A decision predicated by being declared an undesirable alien" by the US State Department due to her arrest protesting with the 1958 Mexican rail worker’s strike and her association with communists.

In Mexico, Catlett worked with the Taller de Grafica Popular, an influential and political group of printmakers and taught at the National School of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Working within the disciplines of printmaking and sculpture Catlett produced realistic and highly stylized two and three dimensional figurative works that ranged from the tender to the confrontational.

About her different approaches for each discipline Catlett says “Printmaking had to do with the moment. I thought of sculpture as something more durable and timeless, and I felt that it had to be more general in the idea that I was trying to express. Something with emotion, and the relation between form and emotion… Form was what interested me more. With printmaking, I was trying to get a message across more, something to think about.

The exhibition Charlotte Collects Elizabeth Catlett: A Centennial Celebration is on show at North Carolina’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture until the 31st of December.

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