WHENEVER I entered a museum gallery and saw sculptures by Elizabeth Catlett, I wanted to touch them. The figures were often smooth, glistening, and engaging. They spoke to me in the same manner as the poetry of Langston Hughes and the musical compositions of Duke Ellington.
When Catlett died in April, I was reminded again that she created artwork for celebration and spiritual nourishment. She mastered the ability to bring beauty out of wood and stone.
In many ways Catlett was ahead of her times. During the 1940s she had explored the black woman’s body as a theme for sculpture and paintings. The images she created upheld the strength and dignity of women. The black woman presented as mother could be seen nurturing a child. In work such as “Homage to My Young Black Sisters,” the black woman figure strikes a posture of resistance with a fist raised. The buttocks of the cedar sculpture reflect strength as well as sensuality. One is quickly reminded of young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee workers, members of the Black Panther Party, and even activist Angela Davis. “Homage to My Young Black Sisters” was created in 1968, the same year the Summer Olympics in Mexico City saw track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith raise their fists on the awards stand in a black power salute.
The art of Elizabeth Catlett ignored borders. Although she resided in Mexico, her work reflected the changing consciousness of African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. The civil rights and black power movements renewed interest in African-American history. The black art movement introduced a desire to define a black aesthetic. Catlett’s work as an elder provided younger artists with a model and a teacher to emulate. In 1969, she created the print “Malcolm X Speaks for Us.” In it we see how she links Malcolm’s face to that of other black faces. The result is a powerful sense of community.