Chicago History: Elizabeth Catlett in They Seek a City

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Elizabeth Catlett’s Sharecropper (1952) on display as part of They Seek a City

by Emilie Egger

“Art is only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people.”–Elizabeth Catlett

The Art Institute of Chicago’s They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910–1950 exhibit, currently on display, includes art created during and inspired by the era of the Great Migration in Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century. The exhibit prominently displays the lithographies of Mexican artist Elizabeth Catlett, known for her artistic work for social justice among issues of race, class, and sexism.

The works focus on African-American migration from the United-States South, the waves of immigration out of several European countries, as well as the thousands of immigrants who traveled from Mexico to the northern United States. The exhibit highlights the common experiences of these immigrants in urban Chicago. Reasons behind the migrations are varied; for some, religious persecution prompted their move, while for others, it was the hope of better working and living conditions in the industrial North.  Chicago became a community for all these immigrants, coming from different backgrounds with the common goal of overcoming the hardships of immigrant life.

The art of Elizabeth Catlett encompasses several of these themes. Catlett is best known for her painting, sculpture, and lithography that focused on the political issues of her time. Born in Washington D.C. Catlett was a graduate of Howard University and the University of Iowa’s fine-arts program, where she studied under renowned American Gothic painter Grant Wood. Her first connections to Chicago came when her sculpture, Mother and Child won first prize at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940. She later began a ceramics residency at the Art Institute of Chicago, where much of her work remains.

Mother and Child 1939

Elizabeth Catlett’s Mother and Child (1939) won the American Negro Exposition first prize for sculpture in Chicago in 1940.

Themes of migration, color, and class permeate Catlett’s work. Catlett was the granddaughter of American slaves and was known to portray famous black activists, such as Harriet Tubman, Ralph Ellison, and Malcolm X in her work. However, the majority of her oeuvre focuses on the lives of more-ordinary working people, especially women. It is these works that currently make up a large part of the current Great Migration exhibit, highlighting both her artistic prowess and her political consciousness.

Some of Catlett’s most-famous works include Sharecropper (1952), which features an anonymous black woman worker from the 1950s American South and her 1946 series of prints titled “The Negro Woman.” She did not shy away from the most-controversial issues of race, including lynchings and police beatings of blacks. Her award-winning Mother and Child became the inspiration for several other sculptures revolving around themes of motherhood.

Catlett spent much of her later life in Mexico, eventually becoming a professor of sculpture at Mexico City’s University of Mexico’s School of Fine Art, before retiring in Cuernavaca. Soon after relocating, Catlett began work with the People’s Graphic Arts workshop in Mexico that called themselves a political/social art group.Together, they created pamphlets, posters, and textbook illustrations that highlighted various working-class causes in Mexico.

Catlett soon became a well-known activist for Mexican working women. She left the United States for good and became a Mexican citizen after being labeled an ‘undesirable’ US citizen following her arrest during a railroad-strike in Mexico City in 1949. She would remain in Mexico until her death.

Until the end of her life, Catlett remained concerned with the social aspects of her work, once saying, “I have always wanted my art to service my people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.” In many ways, her art is an extension of her activist identity. Catlett was a regular striker, picketer, who remained politically active well into her 90s.

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One of Catlett’s works on display as part of the Chicago Art Institute’s ‘They Seek a City’ exhibit

They Seek a City will remain on display at the Art Institute of Chicago until June 2, 2013.

You can see more of Catlett’s work here.

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