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Elizabeth Catlett Mora (15 de abril de 1915 — 2 de abril de 2012) D.E.P.

4 April 2012

Sharecropper, 1968 Lithograph

There’s a different attitude toward art in Mexico.  As an artist you’re greatly admired rather than looked at as something strange. 

(Elizbeth Catlett Mora, 1992)

A “different attitude”, not only to art and artists, but to human dignity and worth is what led Elizabeth Catlett to Mexico. Despite her talent and formidable education, Catlett — as the grand-daughter of slaves — had few options in the “material world” of the late 1920s and early 30s.  Teaching art in a segregated high school was unrewarding, both artistically and financially.  The pay for “colored teachers” was so low, in fact, that it was a step up when Catlett was hired by the federal government’s emergency employment program, the Works Progress Administration.  Through her work with the WPA, she met the Mexican artist and anthropologist Miguel Covarrubias, who introduced her to the works of Diego Rivera.

Although, like most African-American intellectuals, she saw racial and social injustice as part and parcel of economic inequality, the Mexican artist showed Catlett a means to be politically relevant while actively making art.

Woman Fixing Her Hair (Mahogany and Opals, 1993)

Although she continued to work in the United States (and married another U.S. artist in 1940), she was more and more drawn to Mexico, where the artist and the citizen were never considered separate beings, and where her “race” might be seen as justifying a political attitude towards her homeland, but not seen as a social impediment.

Divorced from her American husband, she married Francisco Mora (and  “Mexicanizing” her own name by adopting his apellido paterno as her apellido materno), a fellow member of the left-wing  populist art collective, Taller de Grafica Popular.  From 1949 onward, Catlett’s art memorialized not only the African-American and feminist experience, but that of the Mexican worker and campesino as well.

Malcolm X Speaks For Us (Linoleum cut, 1969)

Catlett’s artistic strength, in light of her never-secret political views made her a suspicious person to the government of the United States.  Her support for the 1958 Mexican railway workers strike (which, under pressure from the United States, the Mexican government considered a “Communist” provocation and put down with violence), the artist was denied a passport, making her, in effect, a political exile in Mexico.  She became a citizen of the Republic, and an honored one, in 1962.

Although, in the 1970s, she was again allowed to travel and work in the United States, she had no intentions of returning to her birth country permanently.  Like the British born Leonora Carrington,  Catlett in her old age found herself “greatly admired”  by the very establishment she’d rejected, who saw her, not as a natural resource that flourished in Mexico, but  something wonderful and strange.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 April 2012 7:21 am

    A fine and sensitive post about an artist more of us should have heard of and seen the works of.

  2. Allen Graham permalink
    4 April 2012 7:30 am

    Here is a little more history that applies to Elizabeth Catlet’s family:
    The Moras:

    http://www.blacdetroit.com/BLAC-Detroit/November-2011/From-Mexico-to-Detroit-With-Love/

  3. 6 April 2012 2:40 pm

    Thanks so much for that, Mexican Files. I remember her work, and am scrounging through my library for the right book. But the part about the acceptance of the artist is new to me :

    “… where the artist and the citizen were never considered separate beings, and where her “race” might be seen as justifying a political attitude towards her homeland, but not seen as a social impediment.”

    Very stimulating, and will keep my mental “juices” going for some time now. Thanks!

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