Elizabeth Catlett, a leading sculptor, painter and printmaker whose depictions of the strength and dignity of African American women made her one of the 20th Century’s most important artists, died April 2 at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. She was 96.
Working in wood, stone and other natural materials, she produced simple, flowing sculptures of women, children and laborers, and prints of Mexicans and Black Americans that she used to promote social justice.
Catlett often addressed themes related to civil rights and African-American culture in her art. Some of her most famous works depict African-American women, like the 1968 linocut “Sharecropper,” the 1968 sculpture “Homage to My Young Black Sisters,” as well as “Negro Mother and Child,” the wooden carving for which she won first prize at the 1940 American Negro Exposition.
“I wanted to show the history and strength of all kinds of Black women, working women, country women, urban women, great women in the history of the United States,” Catlett said in a 1992 interview.
Born on April 15, 1915, she was raised by her mother, a teacher, because her father, who was also a teacher, had died little before she was born. She said she knew from age 6 that she wanted to be an artist.
After graduating from Howard University in 1935 with a bachelor’s degree in art, she earned a master’s at the University of Iowa where she was a student of Grant Wood, painter of iconic “American Gothic.”
In 1946, Catlett traveled to Mexico on a fellowship. There she married the artist Francisco Mora and accepted an invitation to work at Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), a workshop in Mexico City for murals and graphic arts.
She was arrested during a railroad workers’ protest in Mexico City in 1958, and in 1962 the U.S. State Department banned her from returning to the United States for nearly a decade because of her political affiliations.
The Mexican National Council for Culture and Arts said that throughout her career Catlett demonstrated “her interest in social justice and the rights of Black and Mexican women.”