Who Am I? Exhibition
Elizabeth Catlett (American, 1915–2012)
Purchased by University Museums with Neva Petersen Endowment. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
If Elizabeth Catlett’s work could be reduced to a single element, that element would be social realism. It is not an overstatement to claim that every piece of literature in which she features mentions her commitment to African Americans’ issues and experiences; her work illustrates, visually and literally, the struggles of her people, using a transnational artistic language to make political statements. The collaborative nature of the social realist project—a communal effort in that its mission is interdisciplinary and includes writers, playwrights, and artists among others—undoubtedly allows for multifaceted approaches to convey the comprehensive goal of equality and awareness. Catlett uses the formal elements of her prints as well as text to celebrate Black and Latino identities, to critique pervasive systems of discrimination, and to comment on social incidents in a way that forefronts her position as an artist-activist.
Excerpt from Anita Batemen, “Narrative and Seriality in Elizabeth Catlett’s Prints,” Journal of Black Studies, January 10, 2016.
Elizabeth Catlett’s Jackie in some ways stares back at me in much the same way I now see my life. I see colors, shapes, and expression like those encountered each day from my getting up in the morning until going to bed at night. There is more than one reflection in the image whether real or assumed. Do I really see what I think I see or is it the results of my many encounters with limited words and experiences to tie things together? What can’t I see? Should I look again or let it go? All of the questions create possibilities to learn and grow.
Growing up in a mid-Twentieth century small Southern town, my household and those of my neighbors can be seen in Jackie. Both with light and dark skin pigments and facial structures. Both in one small neighborhood, something that one would not expect to see. Things working together, unlike much of what surrounds us.
In my neighborhood, most of the people were there by choice and a very few by chance. This is what can happen when policies and people collide. The image of togetherness seemed real for me as a child. But looking back on my child’s eye view, what I believed to be true did not match the neighborhood’s reality.
As I often tilt my head to view things, the change in movement gives me new information that increases my understanding, and at worst, causes me to rethink and seek additional views and sometimes interactions that create more avenues to reconsider my viewpoints and actions. Being able to have second thoughts and revisit images, words, and ideas usually brings new insights and sometimes cruel reminders that what I’m seeing is in fact what really is and not what it should, or could, be.
My professional work is with people – where understanding and respecting differences within and among people is crucial to being helpful, not harmful. How people behave differs depending on circumstances of birth and assigned value. I have found that getting to know the people and their situations increases my ability to see them in the image of a person who has needs and desires just as the next person does. But, those needs and desires look different based on how they are viewed.
On first look, there seems to be only one image. Re-inspection brings forth new images that alters what is seen and can create discomfort and questions of “how could I have not seen that before?”. Seeing something anew is an important feature of being connected with the people and involved in the things that surround me.
Catlett’s Jackie is a reminder that an image contains many images that may or may not seem connected but, in reality, are.
Human Sciences Extension and Outreach
Elizabeth Catlett was born and raised in Washington, D.C., the grandchild of freed slaves and daughter of a single mother. She was refused admission to the Carnegie Institute of Technology because of her race, but went on to graduate as the first student to earn an MFA in sculpture at the University of Iowa in 1940. In 1946, Catlett received a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship to study in Mexico, where she remained for the majority of her life and career.
Catlett experimented with several mediums, but is primarily known for her sculpture and print work. Catlett spent her life living between cultures (Mexico, Europe, and the U.S.) and grappling with social movements and politics that impacted her in very specific ways as a Black woman, descendant of slaves, and later, immigrant. In 1949, Catlett was arrested while in Mexico and because she was already under surveillance for her involvement with social rights movements and suspected communist activity, the U.S. revoked her citizenship and labeled her an “undesirable alien.” Her U.S. citizenship was later returned to her in 2002.
Catlett once wrote, “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.” Catlett’s art centers around the lives of families and individuals often marginalized. She depicts a young Mexican girl looking hopeful (Bread, 1968), members of the Black Panthers (Homage to the Black Panthers, 1993), Black fathers adoringly holding their children (New Generation, 1992), and a young Frederick Douglass (Young Douglass, 2004).
Jackie (1985) resembles her other works of art in that it depicts a mournful expression and a somber, sorrowful look on the face of her subject. What drew me to Jackie were the jagged lines of the figure’s jaw, the upturned expression, the softly opened mouth, and eyes that seem tired and wary. It’s as if Jackie has something to say but is exhausted by the very act of speaking (out). If Catlett’s focus is on the experiences of marginalized people, Jackie perfectly captures the exhaustion and wariness met by anyone fighting to change social conditions. Catlett created this work of art in 1985; yet 35 years later we are still grappling with systems of oppression, white supremacy, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and xenophobia, to name just a few, and that wary stare can still be found on the faces of those taxed simply for existing.
When I look at Jackie’s somber face and mournful eyes, I can’t help but think of these words by Roxane Gay: “It's hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you're not imagining things. It's hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you're going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it's that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.”
Catlett forces her viewers to grapple with this reality and that is what continues to make her art relevant, powerful, and meaningful today.
Dr. Ruxandra Looft
Director, Margaret Sloss Center for Women & Gender Equity