Elizabeth Catlett - in Conversation with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR., IN CONVERSATION WITH SCULPTOR AND PRINTMAKER ELIZABETH CATLETT AT DU BOIS INSTITUTE
Cambridge, MA (April 13, 2011) — Elizabeth Catlett, the African American sculptor and printmaker, will be in conversation with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, on April 18 at 4:00 p.m. at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at 104 Mount Auburn Street #3R in Cambridge.
A selection of Catlett’s prints is on exhibit at the Neil L. and Angelica Zander Rudenstine Gallery at the Du Bois Institute until May 26, 2011. Entitled “DIGAME: Elizabeth Catlett’s Forever Love,” the show features images provided by Sragow Gallery, New York City.
“It is a great honor to exhibit Elizabeth Catlett’s vital and dynamic work at the Du Bois Institute,” Gates said. “No contemporary artist has brought more dignity, expression, or honesty to her depiction of black men and women and the hard work they have always done in North America.”
Gates will lead a conversation with Catlett, who is 96, in which they will discuss specific works of art as well as the themes and concerns that motivated her work.
Catlett, who was born in Washington, DC, in 1915, is best known for the expressionistic sculptures and prints she produced during the 1960s and 1970s, in which she represented as heroic African American and Afro-Mexican men and women, especially of the working class. Laborers and mothers are frequent subjects in Catlett’s oeuvre. As a sculptor, she has worked in wood, stone, bronze, and clay. She has completed more than eighty prints in woodcut, screenprint, lithography, and linoleum cut. She has said that the purpose of both her sculpture and her prints is to “present black people in their beauty and dignity for ourselves and others to understand and enjoy.”
Catlett studied painting under James Porter at Howard University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1935. She was the first African American student to receive an MFA in sculpture at the University of Iowa, under the guidance of American landscape painter, Grant Wood, in 1940. After a two-year stint as chair of the art department at Dillard University in New Orleans, she continued to study and refine her distinctive technique, at institutions including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League of New York, the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura in Mexico, and, most notably, at the Taller de Gráfica Popular in Mexico City, where she became deeply engaged in the Mexican tradition of socially engaged public art. In 1947, she married the Mexican artist, Francisco Mora, and established permanent residence in Mexico, becoming a Mexican citizen in 1962.
Throughout her career, Catlett has been committed to art as a vehicle for social change. Her political activism led to her arrest in 1958 during the Union of Railroad Workers’ strike in Mexico City and to her eventually being declared an “undesirable alien” by the United States State Department in 1962. She traveled to Havana, Cuba, with the National Union of Mexican Women to attend the Congress of Women in the Americas, and created the poster for the World Congress of Women in Moscow in 1963. In 1969, she organized the Mexican Provisional Committee of Solidarity with Angela Davis and created to poster, “Freedom for Angela Davis.” In that same year, she received the First Purchase Prize for her print, “Malcolm X Speaks for Us in Mexico,” made after his assassination. She returned to the U.S. in 1971, for the first time in ten years, for her onewoman exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
In 1959, Catlett joined the faculty of the National School of Fine Arts, National Autonomous University of Mexico, as Professor of Sculpture. She was the first woman to head the Sculpture Department, and was on the faculty until her retirement in 1976.
Catlett was prominent as a sculptor and printmaker in Mexico from the 1940s onward. Catlett’s reputation in the United States has grown since the 1970s, and she has received a number of prestigious awards and commissions during that period. In 1975, she was commissioned to create a bronze sculpture of Louis Armstrong for the City of New Orleans’ Bicentennial Celebration. In 1978, Howard University, her alma mater, commissioned her to create “Students Aspire,” a bronze relief. In 2003, at the age of 88, she was commissioned to create a monumental bronze relief of “Invisible Man: A Memorial to Ralph Ellison,” in Riverside Park in New York City. Last year, she finished a 10-foot sculpture of Mahalia Jackson, to be inaugurated in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood.