Dec 7, 2013
Elizabeth Catlett: An Appreciation
Posted on Apr 16, 2012
Specific political commentary also pervaded her artwork over the years. Above all, she provided striking visual support for the historic African-American struggles for freedom and dignity. Her prints “Civil Rights Congress” (1949), “Malcolm Speaks for Us” (1969) and several others join sculptures including Homage to My Young Black Sisters (1968) and Black Unity (1968) to reveal her enduring commitment to the tradition of militant black protest, one of the major themes of African-American visual art for more than 100 years. In more recent decades, Catlett created prints that revealed the continuing plight of black children in a racist environment in America that persisted despite the advances of the modern civil rights movement.
As a naturalized Mexican, she used her art to offer critical commentary about Latin American politics. Such 1980s linocuts as “Chile I” and “Chile II” called dramatic attention to the horrific human rights violations of the Pinochet military dictatorship in Chile after the U.S.-aided overthrow of the lawful government there in 1973. “Central America Says No” (1986) similarly condemns American support of oppressive military regimes there during the Reagan administration. Cumulatively, Catlett’s artworks established an exemplary model of combining excellent technique and trenchant social commentary.
Only two days after her death, I decided to pay tribute to her life and work in my Race, Racism and American Law course at UCLA. I reproduced and distributed her 1970 sculptural work called Target. This provocative work shows a black male behind a gun sight, a powerful reminder of an ugly racist reality in both historical and contemporary America. I asked the upper division and graduate students in this class to reflect on the deeper significance of Catlett’s work.
The timing was disconcertingly appropriate for discussing Target. The nation has been focused on the tragic slaying of Trayvon Martin, a killing with obvious racial overtones. Moreover, Catlett’s brilliant three-dimensional artwork also reminds viewers about such recent cases as those of Rodney King, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant and professor Henry Louis Gates—all instances of targeted black men that occurred after she produced her chilling piece. The impact of Target, however, extends even further to the thousands of anonymous people of color, mostly but not exclusively younger males, who are routinely subjected to racist harassment and attacks by police and others throughout the United States.
When students and other viewers of Elizabeth Catlett’s artworks reflect on their powerful social meaning and implications, it ensures that her legacy will endure for generations to come. The profound educational impact of her art, combined with its remarkable aesthetic qualities, solidifies her reputation as an authentic giant of modern art history. And her consummate commitment to use her art to serve people of all races and classes will be the model for all socially engaged artists for the remainder of the 21st century and beyond.
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