Through sculptures, prints, Catlett aims to introduce blacks to their own culture

February 22, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

In 1940, Elizabeth Catlett studied art with American regionalist painter Grant Wood. "He sort of instilled in his students to paint what you know the most about," she said, "and I knew the most about black women and that's what I've been doing ever since."

A sculptor, printmaker and native of Washington, Catlett, 73, has won awards from the former Czechoslovakia to Mexico, where )) she lives with her husband, artist Francisco Mora. She has concentrated on blacks, especially women and children, as shown by the exhibit of her work, "Elizabeth Catlett: The Power of Human Feeling," at Morgan State University.

At Morgan Thursday, she talked to students and teachers, touching on aspects of her work, Mexico and other black artists.

She spoke of being the object of discrimination, when in the 1930s she wanted to go to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, "but there was a little requirement that I didn't fulfill, and that was being white."

A longtime activist, she spoke of being branded an "undesirable" by the United States during the McCarthy era when she, having become a Mexican citizen, wanted to return to this country.

She was told, "If you're going to the United States to agitate, we don't need you. We have enough black agitators already."

But she showed the most emotion when talking about why she makes the art she makes, prompted by a question about wealth and fame.

"I don't have wealth, and the fame is limited to my people," she said. "I have another aim in my work."

It came, she said, from experiences "which led me to believe that black people have a very great hunger for culture. When I taught at Dillard University [in New Orleans in the 1940s], I took the students to see a Picasso exhibition in a museum in the middle of a city park that was off limits to us -- the park, not the museum -- so we were bused in to the museum.

"[The students] had never been in a museum before, and they were so excited, they didn't know you should speak in a soft voice. They were yelling, 'Come look at this.' They had a great time. Some of them hated it, but nobody was bored.

"Then, when I was working at the [George Washington] Carver School.[in Harlem in 1944] one hot night when there was a World War II blackout, a man from the Juilliard Music School played [a recording of] the first movement of Shosta- kovich's Seventh Symphony. And he said, 'We'll have cookies and punch and then listen to the rest.'

"And they said, 'No, we'll listen to the rest now,' and they insisted, and that made a great impression on me.

"You go to museums and you don't see any black people. I was in the Matisse show [at New York's Museum of Modern Art] for three or four hours, and I saw two black people the whole time I was there. And it hurts me.

"It's not that they don't understand it. It's that they have nothing to relate to. One of my aims is to get people into museums and galleries."

She spoke later of seeing a show of black artist Jacob Lawrence's work at the Brooklyn Museum. "It was a night organized by some black artists and most of the people were from the black community. And my husband said, 'It looks like the people are looking at themselves in the paintings, and the paintings are looking at the people like the people are looking at the paintings.' Which was true."

Of course, her work is not only for blacks, a point she addressed when talking about what art can do.

"I think art can make people conscious of things," she said. "For people who have prejudices, it can make them see in another way, make them realize that other people in other cultures have similar experiences. Art can instill pride. It can make people angry, or it can stroke them and make them feel protective.

"There's a lot that you can do with art."

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