Color lithograph on paper
97/100 in series
Signed, bottom right
35 ½” w x 30 1/5” h
Commissioned by the Stevie Wonder Foundation, inscribed “Stevie Wonder, the Stevie Wonder Foundation” with inked fingerprint
In this vibrant lithograph, famed sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett captures a group of dancers in mid-boogie. The five figures in this piece are a study in movement, not only in the position of their bodies, but in the implied play of the women’s dresses. This incredible sense of movement is supported by the perfectly balanced composition. The central figure gestures downward as the two dancers on either side raise their arms. The dancers seem almost as if their steps have been choreographed. The two figures at the outside seem to be engaging with other, unseen partners. The blank white background gives little detail about where they are as well; it could be a scrim on a stage or the wall of a dancehall. Only the figures shadows play there, and of course, they only mirror the dancers themselves.
“I have always wanted my art to service my people—to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.” – Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett is considered one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. Her elegant, simple work mainly focuses on the stories and experiences of African-American and Latinx peoples, especially working-class women and children. Catlett has consistently demonstrated an instinctive knowledge of her materials, whether working in wood, stone or print, and coveys the intrinsic strength and beauty of both the medium and her subjects.
Born in Alice Elizabeth Catlett in Washington, D.C. in 1915, Catlett attended Howard University School of Art where she graduated cum laude in 1936. She had not originally intended to attend Howard; she had won a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, in Pittsburgh, but, upon learning that she was Black, the college refused to allow her to matriculate. In 1940, she achieved two great heights: she became the first student to earn an MFA degree in sculpture from the University of Iowa, and she received the “first honor” in sculpture at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago. She went on to study ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago and later in New York she studied lithography at the Art Students League.
Catlett is also the winner of two prestigious Rosenwald Fellowships in 1941 and 1946. Given by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which focused on creating equal opportunities for all Americans, the Rosenwald Fellowship was awarded to African-American artists, writers, and scholars, as well as Southern Whites with interests in race relations. With the first, she traveled with her first husband, fellow artist Charles White, to the Southern U.S. to study and make sketches for a proposed mural for Hampton Institute (later Hampton University.) Her experience with the extreme racism she encountered there led her to dedicate her art to Black awareness. During this time, she also taught at Dillard University in New Orleans, Prairie View College in Texas, and Hampton Institute in Virginia. With the second fellowship, she traveled to Mexico City to work with the Taller de Grafica Popular (TGP), a collective graphic arts and mural workshop. There she cultivated the theme for her work, the African American woman. It was here that she created a series of 15 prints entitled “I Am The Negro Woman” in 1947, celebrating black women’s contributions as field laborers, domestic workers, educators, and activists.
It was in Mexico that Catlett met her second husband, printer-engraver Francisco Mora. They were married in 1947, and the couple were an integral part of an artistic community that included Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. From 1958 through 1976, she directed the sculpture department at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City. She was the university’s first female professor of sculpture.
Catlett’s commitment to social justice for the most vulnerable in the United States and Mexico led her to decades of vocal activism and protest. She was suspected of being a Communist because of her association with TGP. After her arrest during a railroad workers’ strike in 1949, she was even declared an “undesirable alien” by the U.S. State Department, had her citizenship revoked and was barred from entering the country for 10 years.
Points of Interest
This piece also makes spare but carefully considered use of color and shadow. Solid blocks of red, blue and green call attention to the dancers’ clothing, but also coax the eye into travelling up toward their faces. There is also very little ornamentation, except for one dancer’s floral headpiece. This lends a timelessness to this piece, as well; one can see aspects of Minimalism, Cubism, Post-Modernism and Art Deco represented here.
Catlett was primarily known as a sculptor of very solid yet graceful pieces. Her aesthetic can clearly be seen in this print. She was known for creating a sense of vibrancy and life with very simple shaping of her medium. The curves of her dancer’s bodies are implied by expert shading. And the sharpness of the facial features reminds one of traditional African masks. Additionally, notice how very faint crisscrossing on the central dancer’s arms indicate that she has pushed her long sleeves up, and that her male companion’s cuffs are creased at his ankles.
Upon her arrival in Mexico, Catlett quickly became acquainted with the most well-known and respected artists in the country. She and her first husband, Charles White, even lived in the home of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros for a time. Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco were known as “los tres grandes,” or the big three, of the Mexican Muralist movement. Through her association with these artists, Catlett was joining with those who, like her, were interested in making art about and for the common people.
The Mexican Muralist movement first began circa 1920, when the Mexican Revolution ended. One of the aims of the new government was to establish a new identity for the country and its people, based on more egalitarian ideals, and one way to do this was through art. The new leaders had been influenced by artist Gerardo Murillo, who is considered Mexico’s first modern muralist. Working under the name “Dr. Atl,” Murillo had written a manifesto in 1906 detailing the need for a new art movement that spoke to the everyday interests of the Mexican people. This manifesto is seen as one of the seeds of the Mexican Muralist movement.
Murals have been part of Mexico’s cultural landscape since the time of the Olmec civilization. When the Spanish arrived, the Catholic Church used this art form to evangelize in spite of a language barrier. By the time of the Mexican Revolution, many were still illiterate, so murals became the best way to convey the new government’s message of populism and cultural pride. After the end of the Revolution, and until the 1970s, the government hired the country’s best artists to create public works celebrating Mexican history and culture, and as a method of political propaganda. Murals also took art out of the art market and the realm of the elite and made it available to the wider populace. Hence, it not only celebrated the Mexican people, but empowered them.
By the time Catlett arrived in Mexico in 1946, artists like Rivera and Siqueiros had been commissioned to create murals for more private, and less socialist, clients in Mexico and the U.S. However, their ideas were still very much alive in institutions like Taller de Gráfica Popular (People’s Graphic Workshop), where Catlett produced a considerable body of work. Founded in 1937, this artists’ collective print shop supported revolutionary social agendas until its closing in 2010. In many ways it was through her connection to Mexican muralists that Catlett was able to find her own voice.