35th Bienal de São Paulo
6 Set to 10 Dec 2023
Free Admission
35th Bienal de
São Paulo
6 Set to 10 Dec
Track 9

Elizabeth Cattlet

Hi, I’m Renan Quinalha, from São Paulo, a human rights lawyer and social scientist. I work as a law professor at the Federal University of São Paulo, where I also coordinate the TransUnifesp Center. As a gay man, I am committed to LGBTQIA+ activism and have published a number of books on the subject of sexual and gender diversity. Since June, I’ve been editor of the Books and Free column in 451 Magazine. Recently, I was appointed president of the Working Group on Historical Reparations for the LGBTQIA+ Population of the Brazilian Ministry of Human Rights and Citizenship.

I’ll be joining you here for the next four tracks.

We come to the works of Elizabeth Catlett, an artist who introduced herself as follows: “I am Black, a woman, a sculptor and a printmaker. I’m also married, the mother of three children and the grandmother of five little girls (now seven girls and a boy). All these states of being have influenced my work and made it what you see today.”

Born in 1915 and deceased in 2012, Catlett saw her 96 years complete a life cycle marked by her remarkable artistic expression. Her production is characterized by visual representation highly charged with a critical political stance, shaping images of women engaged in hard work, as well as other agents who challenged racism and the violence suffered by African-American and Indigenous communities.

Her career as an American painter and sculptor was shaped by obstacles, including being excluded from Carnegie-Mellon University solely because of the color of her skin. Resilient, she continued her educational journey at Dunbar High School in Washington, where she had the privilege of studying with the influential Lois Mailou Jones. Then, at the University of Iowa, she studied with the painter Grant Wood, renowned for his canvases depicting the landscape and rural inhabitants of the United States.

In 1946, a new chapter began for Catlett when she was awarded a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund. This support spurred the start of a series inspired by the working women of Carver School, while at the same time opening the door to a life experience in Mexico. There, she decided to take up residence, immersing herself in the colors and cultures that would define a significant part of her artistic production. She worked at the Taller de Gráfica Popular from 1946 to 1966, in Mexico City, alongside other artists such as Charles White, John Woodrow Wilson, Leopoldo Méndez and Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs, who also have works in the exhibition.

In this new phase of her life, her convictions in favor of civil rights and the empowerment of the Black community remained deeply rooted. In 1962 she was declared persona non grata in the USA, due to the influence of Macarthyism. She was granted a special visa to return to her home country on the occasion of a retrospective of her work at the Studio Museum in Harlem, when she was already known as the “mother of the Black Art Movement”. Catlett only had her US citizenship restored in 2002.

From a group of Catlett’s prints exhibited at this 35th Bienal, we highlight two of them: My Reward Has Been Bars Between Me And The Rest Of The Land and Negro es Bello II.

The first, a linocut from 1946, measures 11 centimeters high by 15 centimeters wide. The black and white work has clearly marked features and shows a black woman behind a barbed wire fence. She is portrayed from the chest up, with a stern expression, a prominent nose, thick lips and very expressive eyes. Her hair is short and black and she wears a dark blouse with a light collar.

The 1969 lithograph, Negro es Bello II, is 45 centimeters high and 41 centimeters wide. It features two black faces with angular features. The upper one has a serious, fearless expression and is shown slightly in profile. The one below has a melancholic expression, looking down, showing a certain sadness, and is shown from the front. Over the two faces are around 60 round, yellow stamps. They bear the image of a panther and the words “black is beautiful”. This stamp refers to the movement created in 1960 by the Black Panthers to exalt the beauty of Black people.