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Elizabeth Catlett (b. 1915) is the most renowned African American woman artist of her generation. For over half a century she has produced eloquent and impassioned visual statements against race, class, and gender oppression, against imperialism and other forms of injustice, and “for liberation and for life.”[1] With supreme command of form, sensitivity to materials, and powerful imagery, her art proclaims the fierce determination, staunch resistance, and absolute integrity of her subjects.

Born in Washington, D.C., Catlett was educated at Howard University and the University of Iowa, where she received the first M.F.A. earned in sculpture. She taught at Dillard University in New Orleans and worked for several years at the George Washington Carver People's School in Harlem. Then, in 1946, with funds from a Rosenwald Fellowship, she went to Mexico to complete her Negro Woman series of linoleum cuts, paintings, and sculpture. In 1947, after ending her marriage to the artist Charles White, with whom she had traveled to Mexico, she decided to stay on and make her home there. She became a member of Mexico's internationally recognized Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP; Popular Graphic Arts Workshop), and she and her second husband, the Mexican painter and printmaker Francisco Mora (1922–2002), remained members until 1966. She was the first woman

professor of sculpture at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, where she taught for sixteen years (1959–75). Though she continues to live in Mexico, since the 1970s she has exhibited her prints and sculpture in the United States—in community centers, libraries, schools, galleries, and, more recently, major museums.

My study of Elizabeth Catlett was inspired simultaneously by her art, her powerful representation of a multiplicity of women's experiences, and my own growing curiosity about the choices she had made in her life. I wondered why I had not heard about her reasons for making her home in Mexico or how, in the political context in which she was operating, she was able to maintain a political stance in her art.

To study an artist like Catlett inevitably involves considering art historiography—who is written into the history and who is written out. Catlett has been included, at least by mention, in all the major histories of African American art, from Alain Locke's The Negro in Art (1940) and James Porter's Modern Negro Art (1943) to recent histories of women artists.[2] Still, like most black artists, she continues to be excluded from books on American art and general survey texts.

How, then, are students to learn about Catlett and other artists who are recognized by those knowledgeable about African American art but who have been accorded little or no space in the larger discourse of American art history? Richard J. Powell's Black Art and Culture in the Twentieth Century (1997), in Thames and Hudson's World of Art series, and Sharon F. Patton's African-American Art (1998), in the Oxford History of Art series, are more widely available than are the earlier surveys by Samella Lewis, David Driskell, and others. Historians of African American art have written informative exhibition catalogue essays, but there are still too few book-length studies of well-known African American artists of the twentieth century or earlier. When I became aware of Elizabeth Catlett's work, Samella Lewis's book The Art of Elizabeth Catlett was the most substantive treatment available of any black woman artist.[3] Seeing so much of Catlett's work in one place inspired me to focus my own research on her. If Lewis had not written that homage to her colleague, friend, and former teacher, I probably would not have imagined that I could find enough information on Catlett to pursue my dissertation and my book.[4]

Although these artists are marginally recognized in survey texts, substantive information on them is most accessible in monographs—

yet too few have been written to date. And now, as African American artists, other U.S. artists of color, and indeed artists of other colonized peoples are beginning to be addressed in monographic studies and in art historical discourse, some critical theorists are challenging the validity of the single-artist study. Nancy Hartsock asks, “Why is it, exactly at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than objects of history, that just then the concept of subjecthood becomes ‘problematic’?”[5]

As bell hooks asserts, “Representation is a crucial location of struggle for any exploited and oppressed people asserting subjectivity and decolonization of the mind.”[6] Writing about artistic expression as “essential to any practice of freedom,” hooks argues that “without a doubt, if all black children were daily growing up in environments where they learned the importance of art and saw artists that were black, our collective black experience of art would be transformed.”[7] Access to information about individual artists' work and lives is key to such transformative awareness.

I am not arguing for uncritically inserting marginalized artists into the canon (a practice that would validate the canon as potentially “inclusive” and thus serve to mask its structural and ideological exclusivity), or for reading their work transparently as illustrative of their life circumstances, or for valorizing them as “exceptional”—all potential traps for scholars of marginalized artists. Linda Nochlin notes that “each concrete art historical issue, problem, or situation demands a different set of strategies.”[8] I envision monographs that examine the lives and work of these individual artists in relation—to other individuals, to their communities of origin, to their audiences—and that interrogate how, as members of particular communities, these artists are socially constructed and choose to position themselves in response to that social construction, including how they deal with racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression and how they engage with questions of visual representation. Such counterhegemonic studies, which draw upon what Lucy Lippard calls “relational, unfixed feminist models of art”[9] without presuming that such an individual can “stand for” an entire community, would have implications for how the work of other artists might be understood as well.

Certainly, many young (mostly European American) women art students during the 1970s were transformed by encounters with the work

of (European and European American) women artists. When I entered an art history graduate program after completing my M.F.A. in the mid-1980s, my department offered only one course on women artists and barely included them in other art history courses. Thus the university's women's studies program was crucial to my graduate education, for I wanted to learn and be able to teach my young women art students about women artists who had preceded them. As I developed greater consciousness about race and class issues, I began to understand how my vision of art and awareness of women artists had been severely constrained by my art training and my own social position—as European American, Jewish, middle class, and highly educated. As an undergraduate I had been shocked to discover that women artists who had been well known in their own times were excluded from the discourse of art history. Now, as I began to investigate artists that I and most of my teachers had relegated to the margins of our art historical vision due to their race or class as well as gender—even though they might have been well known in their own communities—I felt a similar sense of shock and betrayal.

To venture into women's studies and ethnic studies programs felt risky because my own department regarded the material I began to study as marginal and my chosen approach as suspect. Still, I felt drawn to learn about artists whose politics made sense to me, who grappled with questions of identity and representation, and who thought about audience, accessibility, and meaning. These were things I too thought about as an artist. I learned that many of the scholars and critics of African American, Native American, and Latin American art whose work I read were also artists. The model of the socially engaged artist/scholar was enticing, for I had been told that one could not be both.

Newly energized by these discoveries, I felt the courage to investigate art, literature, and discursive traditions with which I was unfamiliar. I also began to examine my own internalized racism, a process that is necessarily ongoing and often painful. By internalized racism I mean the unconscious acceptance of the white privilege that informs my experience of the world (even though my Jewishness renders this privilege potentially tenuous) and the unguarded responses, whether verbalized or not, that emerge at unexpected moments in situations where, to quote Cornel West, “race matters.”[10] I hold the view that one cannot grow up in a racist society without internalizing racism and that I have a responsibility

to examine, interrogate, and work to change unintentional reactions that come out of my deepest unconscious training.

I learned about Elizabeth Catlett in an African American studies seminar on contemporary African American artists. In this class, the privileging of whiteness that shapes the dissemination of knowledge within the European-dominated discourse of art history became clear to me, as I encountered the work of artists I had never heard of through books and journals published with much less financial and institutional support than the materials on European and European American artists with which I was more familiar. This course was taught by Freida High W. Tesfagiorgis, who broke new theoretical ground with her concept of Afrofemcentrism (a term she first used in 1984 in writing about Faith Ringgold) as a basis for understanding the artistic affirmation of identity by African American women artists such as Catlett.[11] She writes, “Conceptually, Afrofemcentrism gives primacy to Black-female consciousness-assertiveness by centralizing and enlarging intrinsic values, inadvertently liberating ‘Black feminism’ from the blackenized periphery of feminism.” At the same time, she adds, Afrofemcentrism, while taking an activist stance that is centered in the experiences, consciousness, and worldview of black women, shares aspects of Afrocentric ideology and assumes a fundamental basis in African American experience, cultural values, and traditions.[12] What I learned in this class from artist/scholar Freida High (as she now identifies herself) became the foundation of my further study of Catlett's life and work.

When I began to learn about Elizabeth Catlett, I was curious about how half a century in Mexico had shaped her life, art, and sense of self. I wanted to know more about how her artistic practice has been rooted in community, her involvement with communities of socially engaged artists, first in the United States and then in Mexico, and how these communities had sustained her as an artist, teacher, activist, wife, and mother. I also wanted to explore the subtle and complex ways in which Catlett draws upon African, pre-Hispanic, Mexican, and modernist art traditions to convey, with such command of sculptural and graphic media, the strength, dignity, beauty, and humanity of her subjects—for here I see not only the figural representation to which she has committed herself but also representation of her sense of identity as syncretic and multivalent.

Catlett's sense of “identity” is certainly not fixed and stable, yet historical exigency—the social, historical, and cultural marginalization

and erasure of black women—demands that she name and position herself as a black woman artist. Her changing self-construction at various historical moments, in various geographic, political, and social spaces, and the manifestation of her sense of identity in her art for various audiences fascinate me. They continually impel me to see her art in new ways, not simply as illustrating her emotional states or her life circumstances but as representing her location—how she has positioned herself geographically and politically and how this positioning informs her artistic choices. Her art manifests the border crossings that have been defining forces in her life; it is a visual narrative of identity, transnational movement, and cross-cultural exchange that, in Judith McWillie's words, “explores the frontiers of tradition without relinquishing ancestral fidelities.”[13]

But how could I, who at first glance have little in common with Elizabeth Catlett, do this work with any sort of integrity? Without commonality of race- and class-based experiences, I was relying on my admiration for her work and accomplishments as an artist, activist, and teacher, my respect for her politics and their infusion into her art, and my intellectual and personal curiosity. I had studied in Mexico, and I relished the thought of returning there to engage in research. I began by reading everything I could find about Catlett—and about African American and Mexican art, art history and criticism, and black feminism, about which I, a white Jewish feminist, knew virtually nothing. Cultural studies–based critical and theoretical writings on transnational movement and what Lucy Lippard calls “the cross-cultural process” informed my own crossing of borders within and outside of art history as I sought to make sense of Catlett's life and art.[14] bell hooks admonishes “progressive white critics working from critical standpoints that include race and gender [who] appropriate the discussion in ways that deny the critical contribution of those rare individual black critics who are writing on art.”[15] Taking this to heart, I acknowledge my debt to those writers, and other scholars of color, whose work informs mine. This is not a burden of guilt, as some may read hooks's statement, but a responsibility that enriches my writing because it demands that I be conscious of my own position in relation to my subject and to the discourses in which I participate. I privilege the voice of Catlett herself in my writing, for art historical discourse too often denies the artist's voice, questioning its veracity, and black women are seldom acknowledged as speaking subjects in historical narratives.[16]


Though Catlett herself has been gracious in accepting my presence in her life, some who doubt that a white woman can write from an insider's perspective about a black woman artist have questioned my motives and capability. Indeed, I cannot bring to this work a black woman's “knowledge from within,” as Patricia Hill Collins characterizes this insider's perspective.[17] Accordingly, I try to approach this work from a position of learning from rather than about.

My position as a scholar in this enterprise is a curious one. To study a living artist while maintaining a relationship with her in which we are both aware of our commonalities and our differences casts me simultaneously as authority, student, and collaborator. Archival research, consultation of previously published texts, and extensive study of Catlett's art give me the sense of authority I bring to my writing and to interactions with Catlett in which, on occasion, I remind her of documented occurrences in her past that she has forgotten and that even challenge the narrative of her life as she chooses to tell it. As this research leads me to intuit spaces or slippages in the narratives that have been previously constructed about Elizabeth Catlett's life, I explore these with her. This means examining my role as narrative maker—authoritative? collaborative?—for there are parts of her life that she does not wish to have told.

In such a relationship, how does one write an artist's life? To be able to question the subject of my research has been intimidating, as my lack of knowledge is revealed; exhilarating, as a conversation leads to new understanding; and affirming, as I reflect upon the depth of our human connection. Yet my position as a scholar is also complicated by this relationship. If I leave something out, honoring Catlett's wishes, whose story am I telling? What if someone else has already told that part of the story? To learn from a living artist means relinquishing the (fictive) assurance of scholarly objectivity and comfort of absolute authority, for a living artist can challenge even the most carefully supported research and insist on her version of the story. At the same time, as I acknowledge our multiple perspectives on her story and hold these in tension in my writing, and as I interweave the various strands of my research, from the archival to the conversational, I position myself as authority and as transmitter of what she tells me. Indeed, it is the profound connection I feel with Elizabeth Catlett, along with my continuing intellectual curiosity about questions of transnational identity, representation, positionality, and community, that has motivated my work.


As I interrogate my position as outsider/authority, I begin to understand ways in which my outsider status has afforded me a particular vantage point for exploring Catlett's multivalent and complicated sense of identity and location—as an African American woman living in Mexico, a U.S. expatriate barred from this country by the U.S. State Department as an “undesirable alien” during the 1960s but exhibiting here primarily since the 1970s, and a Mexican citizen (since 1962) producing work about and for black people in the United States. As an outsider to both her worlds, I bring curiosity about the connections between her experiences and social engagement in the United States and Mexico as they inform her art.

Throughout her life, Catlett's social concerns have informed, impelled, and perhaps limited her artistic and life choices. She has chosen to take a stand for justice in her art, to participate in activities (beginning with a protest against lynching in front of the Supreme Court while she was a high school student in Washington, D.C.) that made it impossible for her to remain in the United States after 1947 without facing political intimidation and harassment. Following World War II, the U.S. government launched increasingly vicious attacks on progressive artists, intellectuals, and activists. Catlett soon realized that suspicion of her apparent political sympathies would inevitably result in government harassment and questioning by the House Committee on Un-American Activities if she remained in the United States. Her continued insistence that her art be visually accessible to “ordinary people” has at times positioned her as marginal, or invisible, in mainstream art discourse in both the United States and Mexico—though as a black woman she was, a priori, outside U.S. art discourse no matter what her art looked like. Still, she would argue that she had no choice—that as a black woman who came of age in the early twentieth century, hearing her grandmothers' stories of slavery, and who had the opportunity and privilege to become highly educated, she was obligated to serve through her art those who had been systematically denied such opportunity.

Catlett's political convictions, relocation to Mexico, and chosen forms of artistic practice reinforced her marginalization as an art historical subject. Along with the disavowal of so-called Red art and artists, the ravages of the Cold War also affected art historians and critics of this period. One result has been that much of the writing of the

1950s and 1960s about the art of the preceding decades minimizes or ignores the achievements of the socially conscious artists of the 1930s and 1940s and the links between U.S. and Mexican artists during this period. Lack of attention to this vibrant history has led to disparagement and disappearance of these artists' work and what it stood for—the conviction that art could lead to real social change. The art historical invisibility of Catlett's artistic milieu in the years preceding her relocation to Mexico has thus compounded her marginalization—as a socially engaged African American woman artist—from mainstream art history. This returns us to the question of the monograph: What knowledge is necessarily resurrected when the stories of artists written out of this history are told as politically and socially located and relational?

In Mexico, Catlett asserts, she found relief from the racism that she had experienced daily in the United States. She chose to immerse herself in Mexican life and culture (not an inevitable choice among expatriates), marry fellow TGP member Francisco Mora, and raise their sons in Mexico. She embraced the collective process of the TGP, taking its audience, which encompassed “ordinary” Mexican people as well as people working for social justice in other parts of the world, as her own. The politics and social realist style of the TGP were regarded as politically suspect in the United States; the U.S. government labeled the TGP a “Communist Front organization” and prohibited its members from entering the United States.[18] Catlett's affiliation with the workshop thus reinforced political suspicion of her in this country. Still, the TGP provided a physical and social space where it was possible, indeed desirable, to produce socially engaged, overtly political prints that could not have been produced or exhibited in the Cold War United States. And the TGP's collective approach reinforced Catlett's conviction that a “people's art” must be accessible in its style and imagery without sacrificing aesthetics and mastery of technique. In Mexico, Catlett could affiliate herself with a community of like-minded artists and teach at the university level when such opportunities were rare for black women in the United States.

Still, her relocation bore adverse consequences. With three small children and little money, Catlett was able to travel to the United States only once in the 1950s. When she became a Mexican citizen in 1962, she was declared an “undesirable alien” and denied entry to the United

States until the 1970s, even when her mother was ill and facing major surgery. Her 1961 visit to the United States, when she delivered the keynote address to the Third Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Negro Artists in Washington, D.C., was her last until 1971, when she was granted a visa to attend the opening of her solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem.[19] Catlett's invitation to speak to the major organization of African American artists was evidence that she had not been forgotten in the United States despite her absence.[20] Yet with only a few exceptions, the artists with whom she had worked in New York during the 1940s maintained a careful distance from her during her visits to New York (in 1954) and Washington (in 1961). Though she understood that this response was based in the fear brought on by the U.S. government's anticommunist crusade, she was hurt when only a few of her former acquaintances had the courage to publicly associate with her.[21] This marginalization within the black artistic community, based on her political choices and compounded by her relocation to Mexico, severely limited her exposure as an artist in the United States.

Nonetheless, Catlett's achievements as a teacher, sculptor, and member of the TGP were recognized in Mexico. Her work was acquired for important collections; her students became highly regarded sculptors. Mexican art critics repeatedly noted her artistic contributions to Mexican national culture.

In the 1960s, Catlett turned her attention to the Civil Rights and Black Power struggles in her country of origin, repositioning herself as a black nationalist in Mexico. And as the U.S. political climate changed, she became one of the primary female voices in the Black Arts Movement, the visual manifestation of Black Power ideology in the United States. Though prohibited from traveling to the United States, Catlett focused her art with passion and clarity on the hopes and struggles of her sisters and brothers, demanding witness for women's role in Black Liberation and responding with fury against the racist repression and brutal attacks aimed at African Americans mobilizing for justice.[22] Though her work became less militant in the decades that followed, she has maintained her stance as an artist committed to social justice for African Americans and other oppressed peoples.

Catlett's art is marked not only by her politics but also by her sense of identity as informed by her social, artistic, and geographic location and relocation. Richard J. Powell writes of her prints: “When one is

face to face with Elizabeth Catlett's graphic work, after celebrating her technical accomplishments and eye for eloquence, one must acknowledge, then marvel at, the inclusive, international dimensions of her subjects' blackness, femaleness, and mejicanismo.[23] In Mexico, Catlett came to understand the meaning of mestizaje, the blending of indigenous, Spanish, and African ancestries shared by many in Mexico. She loved to draw the faces of Mexican people, which she rendered with a sculptural roundness reminiscent of pre-Hispanic stone sculpture, as she loved to draw African American faces, nuanced by her attraction to African sculptural traditions, which also reveal a mix of ancestries. Her meticulously textured, starkly black and white linocuts and subtly modeled lithographic drawings of powerfully massive figures depict Mexican subjects: urban workers and campesinos, children working and caring for smaller children, homeless children in the city, indigenous children in the country; and African American mothers, workers, ordinary people, and historical heroines.

When Catlett's children were young, she made prints at the TGP in the evenings and always tried to attend the workshop's Friday night collective meetings. But her sculpture had to wait, she says, until the day she took her youngest son to kindergarten. She put her work as a sculptor on hold for about eight years. Still, she insists, motherhood has been profoundly important for her as an artist, giving her work “immeasurably more depth…. Raising children is the most creative thing I can think of.”[24] She suggests that maternity can benefit one's work rather than detracting from or limiting it, a view of the relationship of motherhood to (other) work that was immeasurably important to me when I became a mother during my research. The theme of maternity, though not new to her, became prominent in her sculpture after she became a mother and took on new meaning for her. Her images of maternity—a theme that always risks critical disparagement as “sentimental”—reflect the creative process of sculpture and of mothering; she represents mothers as playful, sorrowful, exhausted, joyous, fiercely protective (Figure 20).

As Michael Brenson notes, critical and scholarly attention to Catlett's work has most often focused on her politics. “However,” he argues, “while her artistic vision cannot be understood apart from her political beliefs, it cannot be fully appreciated within the language of ideology alone.”[25] Noting its evident relationship to “modernist organic abstraction,” Brenson explores Catlett's sculptural aesthetics as grounded


20. Elizabeth Catlett, Mother and Child, 1959, mahogany

[Full Size]

in a fusion of African, pre-Hispanic, and modernist sources.[26] The women Catlett sculpts in wood, stone, marble, or clay and sometimes casts in bronze are solidly grounded representations of mothers, workers, survivors—proud, angry, determined, celebratory women, women stepping out. In many, suggestions of ethnicity are subtly fluid. Eyes, mouths, and facial structure suggest indigenous ancestry. Catlett's sculptures represent the realities of mixed ancestry for Mexicans, African Americans, and her own children. Some of these figures have faces that look different when viewed from different angles, suggesting simultaneously multiple ethnicities. I read these as sculptural representations of identity as fluid, in motion, subject to the play of location and relocation, in a modernist idiom that acknowledges its sources in the lineages of African and Mexican art and in the European modernism through which Catlett was introduced to African art, even though her art has remained for the most part representational.

In her eighties Catlett has continued sculpting, assisted by her youngest son, David. She also experiments with various printmaking processes. Finally gaining long-deserved critical attention, Catlett has received major commissions and several honorary degrees, and her work is now included in the collections of the most important museums in the United States. So that her art will be accessible to “ordinary people,” she continues to exhibit in community centers, public libraries, and historically black colleges and universities as well as major museums and galleries.[27] She maintains her belief that art by itself cannot change society but can raise consciousness, be a source of pride, and make people aware of the possibility for change:

Art can't be the exclusive domain of the elect. It has to belong to everyone. Otherwise it will continue to divide the privileged from the underprivileged, Blacks from Chicanos, and both from the rural, ghetto, and middle-class whites. Artists should work to the end that love, peace, justice, and equal opportunity prevail all over the world; to the end that all people take joy in full participation in the rich material, intellectual, and spiritual resources of this world's lands, peoples, and goods.[28]

As a woman artist/scholar—and teacher, activist, and mother—writing about this particular woman artist has mattered immensely to me, personally and intellectually. Her race, gender, and chosen locations—political, social, artistic, geographic—have been key to her marginal

treatment, until recently, by American art historical discourse. As well, the way she has chosen to work—collaboratively, in community, in service to the people's struggles in which she so fervently believes—has had no place in the dominant narrative of modernism that celebrates the individual rather than the relational. The series of positionings through which she has defined and redefined herself, even as she has continued to designate herself primarily as a “black woman artist,” and the choices and risks such positionings have entailed disallow a transparent, essentializing reading of her work and life story. Instead, they suggest avenues of exploration for those who continue to “write the artist.”


1. Elizabeth Catlett, quoted in Forever Free: Art by African-American Women, 1862–1980, ed. Arna Alexander Bontemps and Jacqueline Fonvielle-Bontemps (Normal: Center for the Visual Arts Gallery, Illinois State University, 1980), 68. [BACK]

2. Alain Locke, The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Negro Theme in Art (Washington, D.C.: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1940); James A. Porter, Modern Negro Art (New York: Dryden Press, 1943). [BACK]

3. Samella Lewis, The Art of Elizabeth Catlett (Claremont, Calif.: Hancraft Studios, 1984). [BACK]

4. Melanie Herzog, “‘My Art Speaks for Both My Peoples’: Elizabeth Catlett in Mexico” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin–Madison, 1995); Melanie Anne Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000). That monograph offers a fuller treatment of Catlett's life and work than is possible in the present essay. [BACK]

5. Nancy Hartsock, “Rethinking Modernism: Minority vs. Majority Theories,” from The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse, ed. Abdul R. Jan-Mohamed and David Lloyd (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 26. [BACK]

6. bell hooks, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York: New Press, 1995), 3. [BACK]

7. Ibid. [BACK]

8. Linda Nochlin, Representing Women (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 10. [BACK]

9. Lucy Lippard, Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 4. [BACK]

10. Cornel West, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon, 1993). [BACK]

11. Freida High Tesfagiorgis, “Afrofemcentrism and Its Fruition in the Art of Elizabeth Catlett and Faith Ringgold: A View of Women by Women,” in Sage 4, no. 1 (1987): 25–32; reprinted in The Expanding Discourse: Feminism

and Art History, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York: Icon Editions, 1992), 475–85. [BACK]

12. Tesfagiorgis, “Afrofemcentrism,” 26. See Freida High Wasikhongo, “Afrofemcentric: Twenty Years of Faith Ringgold,” in Faith Ringgold: Twenty Years of Painting, Sculpture and Performance (1963–1983), ed. Michele Wallace (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1984), 17–18. [BACK]

13. Judith McWillie, The Migrations of Meaning (New York: INTAR Gallery, 1992), 8. [BACK]

14. Lippard, Mixed Blessings, 3. [BACK]

15. hooks, Art on My Mind, xiii. [BACK]

16. On the importance of the writings of women artists for understanding their visual art, see Mara R. Witzling, introduction to Voicing Our Visions: Writings by Women Artists, ed. Mara R. Witzling (New York: Universe Books, 1991). [BACK]

17. See Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1991); also Patricia Hill Collins, “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14 (1989): 745–73. [BACK]

18. Elizabeth Catlett, interview with Clifton Johnson, January 7, 1984, audiotape recording in Elizabeth Catlett Papers, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana. Also see Karl M. Schmitt, Communism in Mexico: An Exercise in Political Frustration (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), 140–42; and Helga Prignitz, El Taller de Gráfica Popular en México 1937–1977, trans. Elizabeth Siefer (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, 1992), 142. Prignitz cites conversations with various Taller artists who were denied entry to the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. [BACK]

19. Published in the first issue of Freedomways magazine in 1961, Catlett's talk at the National Conference of Negro Artists is reminiscent of her earlier writing on art and democracy. See Elizabeth Catlett, “The Negro People and American Art,” Freedomways 1, no. 1 (1961): 74–80, reprinted in part in Lewis, Art of Elizabeth Catlett. On her exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, see Elizabeth Catlett: Prints and Sculpture, exhib. cat., foreword by Elton Fax, commentary by Jeff Donaldson (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1971). [BACK]

20. In 1964, Catlett was first among the “Four Rebels in Art” discussed by Elton Fax in an essay in Freedomways. Fax discussed her early exposure to the oppression suffered by African Americans and its ongoing impact on her work. He also noted her residence in Mexico. He reiterated and expanded upon these themes in Seventeen Black Artists (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1971), where he also described her experiences with racism and political conservatism in the United States. Elton C. Fax, “Four Rebels in Art,” Freedomways 4 (1964): 215–25. The other artists were Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, and John Biggers. [BACK]

21. See Fax, Seventeen Black Artists, 24, 29. [BACK]


22. In 1970 Catlett was honored as an Elder of Distinction by CONFABA 70, the Conference on the Functional Aspects of Black Art held at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Denied a visa by the U.S. embassy to attend, she made a statement to the conference by phone from Mexico. From her Mexican vantage point, she offered her experience in Mexico as a model for black artists in the United States. Typed manuscript in Elizabeth Catlett Papers, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana; quoted in part in Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett, 147–49. [BACK]

23. Richard J. Powell, “Face to Face: Elizabeth Catlett's Graphic Work,” in Elizabeth Catlett: Works on Paper, 1944–1992, ed. Jeanne Zeidler (Hampton, Va.: Hampton University Museum, 1993), 53. [BACK]

24. Quoted in Marc Crawford, “My Art Speaks for Both My Peoples,” Ebony 25 (January 1970): 101. [BACK]

25. Michael Brenson, “Elizabeth Catlett's Sculptural Aesthetics,” in Elizabeth Catlett Sculpture: A Fifty-Year Retrospective, exhib. cat. (Purchase: Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, 1998), 27. [BACK]

26. Ibid., 36. [BACK]

27. A major retrospective of Catlett's prints and drawings, “Elizabeth Catlett: Works on Paper, 1944–1992,” has traveled to museums, university art galleries, and community art centers throughout the United States since 1993. “Elizabeth Catlett Sculpture: A Fifty-Year Retrospective” opened at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, New York, in 1998 and traveled to several additional venues. [BACK]

28. Quoted in Lewis, Art of Elizabeth Catlett, 26; also in Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett, 173. [BACK]

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