In her 1973 artist’s statement, Elizabeth Catlett wrote:
“No other field is closed to those who are not white and male as is the visual arts. After I decided to be an artist, the first thing I had to believe was that I, a black woman, could penetrate the art scene, and that, further, I could do so without sacrificing one iota of my blackness or my femaleness or my humanity.”
Over the course of nearly seventy-five years as a printmaker and sculptor, Catlett amassed a body of work rich in accolades, awards and degrees as proof positive of her success in permeating the art world. Catlett made inroads in contemporary art at a time in American society where difficulty and sacrifice were compounded by her blackness, as well as her femaleness. Never deterred, Catlett went on to impact the conversations of a global community to turn the focus toward the conditions of oppressed populations largely comprised of women of color, while using art to educate the poor and working class.
Artists of Elizabeth Catlett’s ilk can often be regarded as reclusive or withdrawn inside their studio process. Academic biographies tend to offer sterile fact-based storylines that shuttle the reader from one accomplishment to the next as if it were curriculum vitae. For a deeper and more personal look at Catlett’s revolutionary career, vigilant education advocacy, and prolific body of work, we turned to one of her seven granddaughters for a more personal take on what it was like to grow up with such an influential matriarch who was also a foremother of contemporary art. Nia Mora speaks about her grandmother’s life, work and legacy with the wistful sureness of a granddaughter who has heard every lesson, and still misses every moment spent with her grandmother.
Elizabeth Catlett’s early work depicted the 20th Century African American experience through abstract and figurative styles influenced by African and Mexican traditions. A cum laude graduate of Howard University in 1937 and one of the first three people to receive a master’s of fine arts from University of Iowa in 1940; Catlett was a stern proponent of education and frequently reinforced its importance to her grandchildren. Catlett often shared stories of the injustices she overcame and frequently referenced her initial acceptance and subsequent denial to attend the prestigious Carnegie Institute of Technology after the administration realized she was black. In 2008, Catlett was awarded an honorary doctorate degree and a solo exhibition at Carnegie Mellon University as a formal apology for the affront. Despite the acknowledgement, Nia believes the injustice was one that her grandmother never entirely forgave.
In 1946, Elizabeth Catlett received a Julius Rosenwald Foundation fellowship that afforded her the opportunity to study in Mexico while producing a body of work dedicated to black women, subject matter with which Catlett was most familiar. Upon her arrival in Mexico, she became deeply involved in activist circles and dedicated her work and art to the education and advancement of the working class people in and around Mexico City. She joined Taller de Grafica Popular, an artists print collective geared toward the advancement of revolutionary social causes. It was at Taller that she met her second husband of fifty-six years, Francisco “Pancho” Mora. Their union brought forth three sons, ten grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Catlett established herself as an educator, artist, wife, mother, and activist while expanding her body of work to depict a more global representation of women of color. Nia described the scent of exotic woods and natural materials in her grandmother’s studio as overwhelming in the days following her death. Even still, the smell of freshly cut wood makes her think of her grandmother.
Catlett was close friends with such luminaries as Frida Khalo, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueros. Her political activism as well as her affiliation with several known communist party members, caused her to be arrested, surveilled, detained and ultimately exiled from the United States. She renounced her citizenship in 1962 and became a Mexican citizen until Pancho’s death in 2002, when she regained her US citizenship before returning to her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico where she would continue to work in her studio until her final days.
During the tender moments between Nia and her grandmother, Catlett would share memories of the fondness between she and Frida Khalo. The women spent precious moments laughing, cooking and learning new dances. Catlett joked with Nia that Frida had “only one leg to stand on,” still they danced. Camaraderie aside, the women and men worked communally organizing rallies, installing exhibitions, and harboring ex-patriots. When Catlett and Nia watched the 2002 biographical drama Frida, starring Salma Hayek, the artist lamented the flippant nature of Hayek’s portrayal. Nia recalled her grandmother being upset that the film had reduced her friend to an “over sexualized, gallivanting artist,” when the reality of Frida’s passion was that they were all very serious about their work and the contributions they were making through visual art and murals. The artists’ main objective was to give poor and uneducated people a voice. Catlett believed if the people could not read and write, they could indeed look at a mural and see themselves and their history in the art.
“find a purpose in life that was important and find a voice to speak for people who do not have one.”
For a woman of such magnanimous accomplishments, seemingly confined within the annals of academia, Elizabeth Catlett was an artist about and for the people. She spent her life dedicated to education and created work that was accessible and always political. Nia Mora has always felt an intrinsic desire to live up to her grandmother’s example. From a young age she has been inspired and encouraged to “find a purpose in life that was important and find a voice to speak for people who do not have one.” Artist statements can be contrived and esoteric in their explanation of intent. Elizabeth Catlett’s statements have always carried a clarity and distinct candor that encourage the reader to see the woman behind the work first, then to engage in discourse about the work the woman has created. When asked what Nia felt was her grandmother’s most candid testament to her work was she replied, “I just understand political art. That’s what I make. That’s what I do.”
Nia Mora is a photographer and chef specializing in culinary, travel and graphic art. She is currently working as a yacht chef in the British Virgin Islands. Visit www.niamora.com for more information.