Elizabeth Catlett

By Berlind, Robert | Art Journal, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Elizabeth Catlett


Berlind, Robert, Art Journal


Interviewed by ROBERT BERLIND

New York, April 4, 1991

Although she has had no shortage of acknowledgment during her long and productive career, Elizabeth Catlett might nonetheless be included among those senior artists whose reputation has greatly increased with age. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1919, Catlett studied with Dr. Alain Locke, one of the formative figures of the Harlem Renaissance, at Howard University before earning her M.F.A. degree at the University of Iowa, and afterward with Ossip Zadkine in New York. Throughout her working life she has treated themes of racial injustice, the struggle for civil rights, and the life and history of African-American people. Both as an artist and as a teacher she has been a main force within the African-American art community, which she has done a great deal to vitalize and expand. As she stresses here, much of her effort has gone into disseminating visual culture, African and modernist, to black students, whether at Dillard University in New Orleans, the George Washington Carver School in New York, or the many schools and galleries, often well off the beaten path, where she has taught, shown, and talked about her work.

Since 1947 Catlett has made her home mainly in Mexico, first in Mexico City, where she worked at the Taller de Grafica Popular, and since 1976 in Cuernavaca. She is married to the prominent Mexican artist Francisco Mora, who goes by the nickname Pancho and who was present in their New York apartment during this interview.

Catlett's most recent solo exhibition was at the June Kelly Gallery in New York.

ROBERT BERLIND: I'd like to begin by asking you how your relationship to the art world in this country has changed over the years and also about your relationship to political power. I know that from the time of getting your degree at Iowa you have had troubles with, let's say, the establishment.

ELIZABETH CATLETT: I couldn't come to the States for about eight years. I changed my citizenship in 1962 or '63 because I realized that I was going to live in Mexico all my life, and I was having some problems with the [American] Embassy in the late fifties, so I just changed my citizenship.

R.B.: You had moved there in the forties, right?

E.C.: Yes, I went to Mexico in 1946. I left because I was working at this school and I got a grant to go and then got married, and Pancho didn't want to live in the States. And I had children. And then I couldn't come back to the States.

R.B.: So you weren't expatriating yourself in a deliberate way as a lot of black artists and musicians did.

E.C.: No, although then the black artists couldn't exhibit anywhere outside of some little group shows like at the Downtown Gallery, the place where Jake Lawrence was first exhibiting.

R.B.: What sort of trouble did you have with the American Embassy in Mexico?

E.C.: There was a young black writer in Mexico trying to finish a novel, with no money, and so he asked me if he could do a story about my work for Ebony and he would get $350, so I said "Sure." [The article, by Marc Crawford, titled "My Art Speaks for Both My Peoples," appeared in the January 1970 issue of Ebony.--ed.] And then I began to get invitations to come to the United States, and they wouldn't let me come. That must have been in 1968 because it was during the Olympics, and I had some work on exhibition.

In 1971 I did an exhibition around the idea of what was going on with black people in the States. I did it for Mexicans to get an idea, and I wanted to see what black people in New York thought about it. So I asked Elton [the late artist/writer Elton Fax], and he arranged that show in the Studio Museum [in Harlem]. They had a grant which gave them enough money to call black artists around the States and ask them to call the State Department to give me a visa. And they did. It wasn't a visa, it was a waiver. And it was for six days, by the most direct route possible. …

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