“True art has only come from cultural necessity. Since prehistoric times, since the earliest cave painting, people have had this compulsive necessity to express themselves through painting, sculpture, and engraving… there exists a fundamental need to create, to form an aesthetic, something from new materials. When this creative urge is denied fulfillment, repressions and frustrations occur. We Black people know this from experience….”
- Elizabeth Catlett-Mora’s speech, “The Power of Human Feeling and of Art,” Wooster College, November 10, 1981
Catlett-Mora transmitted the tone of urgent necessity in these words spoken at Wooster into her artwork. For example, in her sculpture Target, the artist places a literal shooting target squarely in front of the bronze head of a Black man. Catlett-Mora acutely conveys the imminent danger Black men meet everyday simply for being. The artist, also a wife and mother of three sons, felt compelled to create such a strong work as a way of empathizing with their plights in this world. In a speech at a banquet hosted by the Studio Museum in Harlem on October 26, 1983, the matriarch proclaimed, “I share their sorrows and joys, and I fear for them in this chaotic world of today.”
April 15th, 2023 marked what would have been Elizabeth Catlett-Mora’s 108th birthday. Throughout her illustrious life, the Washington DC native studied at higher-learning institutions like Howard University and University of Iowa, finding life-long mentors in James Porter and Grant Wood. She taught at two historically Black universities, Dillard University and Hampton Institute. She also studied with French sculptor, Ossip Zadkine, for a year while in New York as well as Costa Rican-born sculptor, Francisco Zuniga in Mexico. All of these experiences led Catlett to routinely incorporate two principles in her artistic practice:
Art must be as physically accessible and publicly available as possible to everyday people.
Thoughtful narrative portrayals of people of color’s histories, but especially Black people’, is a necessary act of activism that must support the collective freedom of all global peoples.
“Whether we like it or not, we are part of a world-wide struggle to change a situation that is unforgivable and untenable,” writes Catlett-Mora in the Spring 1961 issue of Freedomways. The essay titled, “The Negro People and American Art,” goes on to state, “there is hunger, too much hunger, for these necessities, and we must search for and find out place, as Negro artists, in the advance toward a richer fulfillment of life on a world basis. Neither the Negro artist nor American art can afford to take an isolated position.”
The letters sent between Catlett and Levin and various stakeholders in the project illuminate the hardship faced by Black woman artists in their quest to produce works with full creative agency. Ultimately, Catlett triumphed in creating a commemorative statue of Armstrong that she deemed appropriate to truly honor the jazz icon’s life and legacy.
Although known as Elizabeth or Betty throughout most of her life, Catlett-Mora’s given name was actually Alice Elizabeth Catlett. Mary Carson and John Catlett welcomed their new baby, Alice, in 1915 at Washington, DC’s Freedman’s Hospital. Both Mary and John descended from parents who were enslaved. Despite all odds, they still managed to gain access to quality education and ensure Catlett and her siblings had even better opportunities. This tenacity threaded throughout Catlett’s lifetime and strategically harnessed to create artwork that celebrated the resilience of her own family and Black people globally. Join us in celebration of this extraordinarily talented sculptor, painter, and printmaker, Alice Elizabeth Catlett-Mora by reading the following recommended sources about her life or visiting any number of institutions globally that collect and display her work.
For more information about Catlett-Mora: