She graduated from Howard University with a degree in painting and was the first student to receive a master of fine arts in sculpture from the University of Iowa, in 1940. A lifelong artist, activist and educator, Catlett is known for her depiction of social and political issues, in particular those relating to African-American and women’s themes. This exhibit presents a large selection of Catlett’s works and does a good job documenting her extensive interests.
“Danys and Liethis”: Elizabeth Catlett’s take on the woman-child relationship adds an unexpected burst of color to Community Folk Art Center.
“Sharecropper,” a widely reproduced woodcut, is both emotional in its embrace of its subject, and indicative of Catlett’s technical skills. Viewers see variations in lines, from the bandana under the woman’s hat to the patterns visible on the hat’s left and right sides. “Blues Player” portrays a woman playing guitar on her front porch. A third work, “Party/Fiesta,” has a very different appeal: Four dancing women seem to leap off the lithograph. “Singing Head,” meanwhile, is a polished golden bronze sculpture, a work suggesting a connection to another world.
At the same time, certain themes emerge within the exhibition. Catlett, now 96, has long celebrated family ties. She depicts a woman-child relationship in pieces such as “Danys and Liethis” and “These Two Generations.” In “Madonna II,” a woman holds two children, her arm wrapped around them and creating an arc. In the sculpture “Maternity,” Catlett depicts a pregnant woman in a different visual context. The mother’s body tops the piece, and the fetus sits in a space at the bottom.
Throughout her career, the artist has created socially conscious artworks dealing with issues such as segregation and lynchings. “Pride and Power” documents that aspect of Catlett’s art through a powerful lithograph, “Torture of the Mothers,” and a 1961 piece referencing apartheid.
And the show lets other ideas flow in an indirect way, demonstrating how the artist executed varied artworks. Catlett moved to Mexico in 1947 and married Mexican artist Francisco Mora, becoming a naturalized Mexican citizen in 1962. Life there influenced works like “Bread,” with its portrayal of a peasant woman, and “Vendor,” which depicts a street vendor. In a work portraying Thurgood Marshall, Catlett didn’t present him sitting on the Supreme Court or walking into a courtroom as a civil-rights lawyer. Instead, Marshall appears as a community elder, a councilor positioned just above a couple reading printed material, perhaps ballots.
Pride and Power not only shows Catlett’s ease in working with both black-and-white and color prints but also focuses on her exuberant use of color. Indeed, the show displays color prints such as “Three Women of America,” “All the People” and “Freedom.”
Finally, the sculptures on display, some done in a more abstract vein, move in yet another direction. In “Recognition,” a black marble work, two partners totally merge together. “Webbed Woman” depicts a woman with a web between her arms and another running from her feet to her hips. Open to interpretation, this piece perhaps touches on ties between people and other creatures on earth. In any case, it’s one of the best works in the show.
Pride and Power presents a survey, in the manner of any retrospective, but has its own advantages. Displaying pieces done as recently as 2008 increases the show’s energy. Hanging illustrations from the book, Let Every Voice Sing, reminds viewers that Catlett’s work appears in print as well in galleries and museums.
The exhibit continues through Dec. 12 at the Community Folk Art Center, 805 E. Genesee St. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 442-2230.