Spring 2011 - Elizabeth Catlett

DIGAME: Elizabeth Catlett’s Forever Love

In the summer of 2010 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. invited Elizabeth Catlett to have an exhibition at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute. Elizabeth asked me if I would curate the show. We have been friends for over 25 years so I decided to do a little “gem of a show” in honor of her 96 years. I selected some of her most important works, which highlight her skills and strengths as an artist in various mediums.

Two portfolios rarely shown in their entirety are “I Am The Black Woman” a suite of 14 linoleum cuts, which show the many aspects of the lives of black women in the United States; and “For My People,” a suite of six color lithographs created in 1992 specifi-cally to accompany the poem written by Margaret Walker of the same title, in 1937.

Two of the three oil paintings being exhibited have rarely been shown publicly. “The Sharecropper,” 1946, and “Head of a Woman,” 1944, are both from private collections. “The Sharecropper,” Catlett’s iconic image, was accompanied by several versions of the linocuts she did in the 1950s. Also included in this group, was the rarely seen 1945 linocut of a “male” sharecropper, which was the first image of a sharecropper Catlett created. This was the first time these images have all been shown together.

Born in 1915, Catlett grew up in Washington D.C. and graduated from Howard University in 1935. She graduated from the University of Iowa in 1940 and was the first person to receive an MFA Degree there. While a student at Iowa, she studied painting with Grant Wood who guided her by saying that she should paint “what she knew the most about.” She responded by saying that what she knew the most about was being a woman. So she decided to devote her career to the imagery of black women.

Catlett went to Mexico on a Julius Rosenwald Foundation Grant in 1946-7. In 1947, she established permanent residency there, married the painter Francisco Mora, and raised a family of three sons: a painter, a musician, and a filmmaker.

What Elizabeth Catlett said in 1976 still holds true today: “If we can enrich the life of one Black man, one woman or one child, then we have fulfilled our function as art producers. Artists, as the sensitive area of the community, can clarify so many things. We can project the beauty of our people, the grace, the rhythm, the dignity. We can explain frustrations and stimulate joy. The artist Must be an integral part of the totality of Black people.”

–– Ellen Sragow, New York City, January, 2011

Watch Video: A Conversation with Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett’s “Sharecropper (small male),” 1945.
Image provided by Sragow Gallery, New York City.


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