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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

Elizabeth Catlett, 1915-2012: African American Mexican

Born in Washington, D.C., the artist Elizabeth Catlett traveled to Mexico when she was 31, curious about post-Revolution mural painting. Catlett liked to note that she arrived in Mexico City one night and the next evening  went to the Taller de Gráfica Popular — the People’s Graphic Arts Workshop — where she found “a lot of us, all artists,” soon-to-be famed figures like Leopoldo Mendez, Pablo Higgins, and Francisco “Pancho” Mora.


This community of like-minded artists, as well as the repressive atmosphere in the post-war United States, would convince Catlett to make México her home for the rest of her life.


Catlett saw parallels between the oppression of “both my peoples,” African Americans and Mexicans. Fieldworkers, laborers, mothers and fathers, homeless children, political resisters: Her work expresses the extraordinary dignity in ordinary people’s daily acts of survival and constantly illuminates opposites: anger and outrage, strength and resilience, beauty and joy, oppression and ugliness.                 


An artist-activist, Catlett was arrested in 1958 during the Union of Railroad Workers strike in Mexico City. The same year she became the first woman hired to teach fine art at Mexico Citys Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) and later became the head of the prestigious university’s sculpture department. Such a position, in the United States of that era, would be totally off limits to African American women.


Catlett became a Mexican citizen in 1962. Her radical politics would then deny her entry into the United States until 1971, when she gained a visa to attend the opening of her solo show at Harlem’s Studio Museum.

Elizabeth Catlett’s technical skill would never undercut the unique power of either her artistic vision or her broader vision for humanity. She remains an artist for the ages, with a universal but specific message for racial justice and social transformation.


I have always wanted my art to be of service to my people,” as she once noted. We have to create an art for liberation and for life.”