Elizabeth Catlett 1915-2012
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has placed three of Elizabeth Catlett’s sculptures in Heritage Hall, the building’s atrium and first floor entryway.
Like much of Catlett’s work, these life-size sculptures focus on the role of women in civil and human rights.
Elizabeth Catlett was born in Washington, D.C. in 1915. She wanted to study at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, but was denied admission because she was Black. She enrolled at Howard University, a historically Black research university in Washington, D.C., where she studied printmaking, drawing and sculpture. She went on to get her MFA at the University of Iowa. She chose Iowa because she wanted to study with Grant Wood, whose works she admired. Wood encourage her to focus her work on subjects that she know well. His advice led her to draw and sculpt images of African-American women and children.
Catlett wasn’t allowed to stay in the dorms on campus. She persevered, and became the first African-American woman to receive an MFA from the University of Iowa.
After graduation, Catlett was appointed the chair of Dillard University’s art department in New Orleans. The Jim Crow-era segregation that she experienced, like her students being denied access to museums, led her to leave the South and move to New York. She studied at the Art Students League, and worked with other great African-American artists, like Norman Lewis.
In 1946, she received a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship to travel to Mexico, where she worked for the Taller de Gráfica Popular, an activist artist cooperative that came under scrutiny of the US government for its radical politics. Because of her work with the cooperative, Catlett was declared an undesirable alien.
She remained in Mexico for much of her life. She married printmaker, Francisco Mora. The couple had three children. Catlett spent much of her career teaching at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas in Mexico City.
Throughout her lifetime, her works were shown in the U.S. and Mexico. They are in the permanent collection of The Met, the Whitney, MoMA, Carnegie Mellon, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in D.C. and, of course, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture as well as many other major venues.
In 2017, the Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall on the University of Iowa campus was named in her honor.
Shantay Robinson. A Trio of Elizabeth Catlett Sculptures Convey the Power of Service to Humanity. Smithsonian Magazine. April 27, 2022.
Coralie Loon. The hidden power of Elizabeth Catlett. The California Aggie. July 26, 2022.