Image Credit: Elizabeth Catlett, 1948. Malin Gallery
Responding to segregation and the fight for civil rights, Elizabeth Catlett’s art is pervaded with a sense of toil and struggle, combined with the elements of strength and dignity she attributes to her subjects. She harboured an immense spirit of activism, which filtered into her art to express politically charged visions challenging the oppression endured by African Americans.
“Art for me now,” Catlett wrote in 1971, “must develop from a necessity within my people. It must answer a question, or wake somebody up, or give a shove in the right direction— our liberation.” She held a profound determination centred around giving a voice to the enduring strength and achievements of black women and other oppressed peoples.
Her art expresses this vision, illustrated through print. In particular, her work entitled Harriet after Harriet Tubman. The renowned American abolitionist and political activist was born into slavery, though escaped and subsequently carried out missions to rescue other enslaved people, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.
Through Catlett’s depiction of her, the use of heavy black lines set against white conveys the direction and purpose that Tubman embodies, heightened by the strength in her stance. Her arm points forward, leading the others onwards towards liberation, freedom. The angular cast of her face reveals an almost ominous expression of strength and anger. Each face contains a simplistic, angular strength, crafting an image of people united in a joint anger, struggling in a joint cause.
Catlett’s feminist ideologies bleed through this linocut; she portrays Tubman wearing a dress, though embodying a stance that is hard, unyielding, traditionally “masculine.” Catlett’s representation adds nuance to what we take to be an expression of womanhood. To Catlett, art is a medium for which to disseminate her strong political views, hoping that these will filter into the minds of observers, ultimately encouraging reform. The grand narratives of slavery and capitalism shaped her early understanding of the suffering and exploitation of black people in the United States, and laid the groundwork for her artistic vision. Her art is one suffused with this belief in superseding these traditional conceptions that oppress and inhibit black people even today. In producing politically charged and aesthetically compelling graphic images, Catlett aimed to give a voice to the marginalised, crafting visions that don’t shy away from the brutality of the world.
In particular, her print, And a Special Fear for My Loved Ones conveys this brutality by illustrating the ever-present threat of lynching that plagued the African American community in the south. A man is depicted lying with his limbs bent, one arm drawn up above his head. His deadened eyes remain open, staring blankly up towards the three figures that stand near him. The movement of the grass he lies on conveys a sense of slipping, falling into some kind of void, expressing a rapid loss of control. Shoes stand on the noose, symbolising the oppressive authority of those deemed ‘superior.’
Through this harrowing vision, Catlett confronts with uncompromising willingness the brutality of a world permeated by systemic racism. Her haunting visions are grounded in what she regarded as the necessity to render visible that which had not been the subject of art. She brings to the forefront that which has been previously silenced, expressing harrowing visions in order to heighten an awareness that has been systemically stifled. It is evident that Catlett’s belief in the power of her art to reform the perceptions of her people never wavered, instead prevailing with a heightened strength as her work grew in recognition and ambition.
Image Credits: Torso,1978. Malin Gallery. Political Prisoner,1978. Malin Gallery