Women at work: Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett was the granddaughter of former slaves. She focused her art, a mix of sculpture, painting, and prints, on the struggle for civil rights and the female African-American experience.

She was a teacher at first, before World War II, when opportunities for women artists, much less African-American women, were almost non-existent. It was a trip to Mexico, in 1946, that changed her trajectory. Inspired by the culture and the social themes of the art there, she soon moved to Mexico City, divorced her husband, and began a new life immersed in the same socialist politics and art circles as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Her art became a fusion of traditions from Africa and western Mexico. Many of her pieces celebrated famous African Americans as well as other anonymous workers, like the female sharecropper above. She used art to explore and promote her political views and to depict other strong black women, defying the norms of white male artists.

“I have always wanted my art to service my people,” she said, “to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”

—written with Eleanor Hohulin, Learning Innovation intern at Mia

“Women at Work” celebrates Women’s History Month by highlighting female artists in Mia’s collection.

Images: (left) Elizabeth Catlett’s Sharecropper, from 1952, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art; (right) Fern Logan’s photograph of Catlett in 1986