Elizabeth Catlett and the Cold War

Elizabeth Catlett, an African American Artist at the height of the Cold War, chose to leave possible persecution in the United States. With this decision in mind, she settled in Mexico to work with a group of artists with common beliefs. The themes that she centered her art around were not only significant to her as an individual, but they also brought light to issues around race and gender that opposed the reputation that the United States was trying to build for itself.

The Cold War is often spoken of as a political race between first-and-second-world countries. There is rarely any mention of the impact the Cold War had on the rest of the globe or the realms outside of politics that were affected. However, it is dismissive to choose to ignore how the Cold War touched all corners of the world and all realms of life. To truly gain an understanding of the Cold War, one must look at areas that have been largely ignored. For example, through learning about the life and legacy of Elizabeth Catlett, an artist living in Mexico at the height of the Cold War, one can better understand both Mexico’s influence on the Cold War as well as her influence on art and culture during that time. One must consider Elizabeth Catlett and what led her to Mexico, why she stayed, how her location affected her art, and how her art has been perceived by others when considering the Cold War.

Born in Washington D.C. in 1915, Elizabeth Catlett was an American citizen who grew up in the United States and attended college there as well. A product of Howard University and then the University of Iowa, Catlett took her love for art and turned it into a career. As the first person to graduate with a master’s degree in Fine Arts, Catlett went on to teach at places such as Dillard University and George Washington Carver People’s School. During her time at George Washington Carver, Catlett’s work with the working-class of Harlem solidified her desire to portray the hardships of the poor and working class in her art. Elizabeth Catlett decided that her next steps would be to join the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) in Mexico City. With the help of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship, Catlett traveled to Mexico to work with the graphic arts workshop dedicated to making inexpensive, accessible prints that supported populist and political causes. [1] Eventually, Catlett became a permanent resident of Mexico City and she chose to continue working with TGP. Catlett understood that perfecting her craft would happen among the influence of Mexican artists and the Taller de Gráfica Popular. [2] It was within this group that Elizabeth Catlett focused on themes that would have caused her some trouble back in the United States. These themes included topics such as African Americans and more specifically, African American women.

Elizabeth Catlett’s choice to remain in Mexico derived from multiple vantage points. As a progressive artist focused on bringing light to topics that the United States would have rather ignored, Catlett remained in Mexico to avoid government attacks on artists and activists such as herself. She could have faced government attacks because she was not silent on her political stance. [3] Although she could not claim a political party in Mexico until she gained citizenship, Catlett was vocal about her stance on the American government’s treatment of African Americans. Due to the multiple political situations that the United States was facing (both the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement), disruptions in either area called for intervention by the United States government. Since Elizabeth Catlett was vocal on both fronts, her leftist ideologies made her a threat to the nation at the time and put her on the radar of top officials in the United States. After moving to Mexico, the United States declared Elizabeth Catlett as an “undesirable alien,” which barred her from the country until 1971. [4] Which prohibited Catlett from attending events and exhibits in the United States. However, she was able to use her platform as an artist and a former African American citizen to speak on her beliefs and influenced others to do the same.

Living and working in Mexico had a major impact on Elizabeth Catlett’s career. Catlett’s work was influenced by the unity of all members of Taller de Gráfica through her membership and partnerships. Aligning with her personal beliefs, she understood that the group was a collective unit. [5] Once Elizabeth Catlett became a Mexican citizen in 1962, she used her platform to focus on issues that were very specific to African Americans. Throughout the 1960s, Elizabeth’s work dove into political themes such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. More specifically, Catlett chose to focus on the role of women in these movements. [6] These themes are still notable in her work, especially when looking at her pieces from the 1960s.

Although Elizabeth Catlett passed away in 2012, her work remains notable and influential not only to artists but to the rest of society as well. In 1998, American Art Curator, Lowery Stokes Sims, stated that “While other artists organized over risks of being stereotyped or pigeonholed by their race…the relationship between Catlett's life and work demonstrates directly how the black experience predicates a specific perspective, a choice of subject matter.” [7] Aside from her influence among art and artists, Catlett left a political mark on what it means to be an African American woman. In 2008, Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, Dr. Rebecca M. Schreiber, wrote that “Her efforts to depict the experiences of African Americans in the United States through Mexican-derived cultural forms and techniques produced a deliberately transnational artistic practice in opposition to the style of art promoted abroad by the U.S. State Department as quintessentially American.” [8] Elizabeth Catlett’s work not only had an impact on the world of art but on activism and social justice for African Americans and women in particular. Elizabeth Catlett’s work was significant because she chose to add personal aspects of her life and her surroundings to her work. The two bled together and through that, Catlett used her voice to advocate for her beliefs.

The art that Elizabeth Catlett created was only possible through her move and integration into Mexican society. Elizabeth Catlett was able to focus on her work and use it to advocate for African Americans and specifically African American women by trading her American citizenship for a permanent residence in Mexico at a time when she and other were scrutinized by the United States government for their beliefs. While creating sculptures and images, Catlett was able to focus on themes that inspired her and helped her advocate on behalf of those that may not have been able to use their voice back in the United States. one can better understand the impact that Elizabeth Catlett’s art had on society during the Cold War and even today through considering the life of Elizabeth Catlett and how she arrived in Mexico, why she stayed, and how her art was impacted and perceived by this decision.