STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
“Elizabeth Catlett: Art for Social Justice” celebrates of the artist’s work during the year she would have turned 100. The exhibit at the La Salle University Art Museum features 24 prints, mixed media, and sculptures including eight fine art prints from University’s collection and 16 works on loan from private collectors, museums, and galleries.
Many of the artworks illustrate Catlett’s concern for equal rights for African Americans as well as indigenous Mexicans; affirm Black identity, motherhood, and family; and celebrate a future of racial harmony. Some also address the rights of all humans to have access to basic needs such as food and literacy, organizers said.
Klare Scarborough, Ph.D., Director and Chief Curator of La Salle University Art Museum, who co-curated the exhibit with Mey-Yen Moriuchi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Art History, thought it was important to expose students and the public to the social justice issues Catlett focused on. That coincides with the University’s mission, she said.
“We believe that exposure to any kind of art work will serve the mission of social justice — the idea that art touches people, art affects people, art can affect positive change,” she said. “People can want to learn more, improve themselves, reach higher goals, and set higher goals.”
Catlett, who was African American and Mexican, was born in Washington. D.C. in 1915 to middle-class parents. She grew up listening to her grandmother recount stories about her youth as a slave. She graduated from Howard University in 1935, then studied at the University of Iowa, earning an MFA in sculpture in 1940. She participated in the Harlem Renaissance, then traveled to Mexico City in 1946, inspired by the progressive social work of Mexican muralists and printmakers. She was part of the Taller de Gráfica Popular between 1946 and 1966. There, she met future husband Francisco Mora, whose work, along with that of other artists, is featured in “Mexican People: Lithographs of the Taller de Gráfica Popular,” a portfolio of 12 lithographs published in 1946, which are displayed in an adjacent gallery.
Catlett was a trained sculptor and also did printmaking. She was inclined to be more abstract, Scarborough said, but chose to do more social realist art because abstracts need to be deciphered. Catlett used her art to educate people on issues that were important to her. She often depicted minorities or oppressed peoples.
The “Art for Social Justice” exhibit is more or less chronological so people can see how she developed as an artist, Scarborough said.
“You can see her going from her early Negro woman series to Mexican prints,” she said. “Her work of the late 1960s and 70s, influenced by the Black Power movement in the U.S., is very different. During the 90s through 2000s, her work is more colorful and optimistic.”
Catlett died in 2012. Her work as she neared the end of her life reflected the fact that the world was different.
“She was thinking of her own children and growing up in a world that’s changing, that’s more accepting,” Scarborough said.
One thing that didn’t change throughout her life was the fact that when Catlett was creating, she didn’t think of herself. For her, art was a way to speak to and for others.
“She made a comment once: ‘I always felt that art should be for the people,’” Scarborough said. “Catlett wanted to speak to everyday people, to make a change in their lives, to present cause for social improvement.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Elizabeth Catlett: Art for Social Justice” and “Mexican People: Lithographs of the Taller de Gráfica Popular”
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri. through June 4. Also: noon to 3 p.m. May 16.
Where: La Salle University Art Museum, La Salle University, 1900 W. Olney Ave., Philadelphia.
Info.: Call (215) 951-1221 or check, http://www.lasalle.edu/museum/