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Art & Culture

Elizabeth Catlett’s Echoes in Sculpture

Elizabeth Catlett’s sculptures stand in the NMAAHC as a profound tribute. Her art echoes service and humanity, with each curve and line. Visitors encounter the echoes of Elizabeth’s vision, which powerfully narrates the resilience and grace of her subjects.

Elizabeth Catlett’s sculptures have made a triumphant entrance into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), symbolizing the artist’s unwavering commitment to dignity, resistance, and education. These three bronze sculptures, namely “Rejecting Injustice,” “Offering Life,” and “Offering Education,” have a rich history that reflects their significance.

Originally displayed in a Washington, D.C. building with historical ties to civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell’s campaign for desegregation, these sculptures have a compelling story. Terrell’s efforts led to the integration of the department store cafeteria in 1952, a crucial moment in the fight for civil rights. With the store gone and the building renamed Terrell Place, the sculptures by Catlett were commissioned to honor this legacy.

NMAAHC welcomed Catlett’s sculptures into its collection in 2016, and after meticulous conservation and pandemic-related delays, they have found their rightful place in Heritage Hall. These life-sized sculptures depict women in various roles, emphasizing their contributions to society. Catlett’s work reverberates with themes of dignity, resistance, and the importance of education, particularly showcasing the strength and resilience of Black women.

As Deputy Director Kinshasha Holman Conwill explains, these sculptures are seen as guardians of the Black narrative, carrying the legacy of the struggle for civil and human rights. In the heart of Heritage Hall, they join other works by prominent Black artists like Chakaia Booker, Sam Gilliam, and Richard Hunt, amplifying Catlett’s vision of art that advocates for civil rights.

Catlett’s journey as an artist is marked by remarkable milestones. Despite facing discrimination, she persevered, becoming the first woman to earn an MFA in sculpture at the University of Iowa. Her experiences in Mexico, where she embraced the culture and studied under influential muralists like Diego Rivera, shaped her artistic identity. However, her association with the left-leaning Taller print collective in the U.S. led to her being considered a “communist front organization” by the government, ultimately causing her to renounce her U.S. citizenship and become a Mexican citizen.

Catlett’s art is a powerful reflection of her dual citizenship and her commitment to liberation for all. Her sculptures are “images of dignity,” conveying her deep-rooted belief in the strength and grace of women, from everyday individuals to heroic figures like Harriet Tubman. Her legacy, intertwined with artists like Charles White, emphasizes the significance of the African American image and the enduring struggle for civil rights.

The three sculptures acquired by NMAAHC in 2003, late in Catlett’s career, encapsulate pivotal themes. “Rejecting Injustice” portrays a woman courageously shielding her face, a symbol of resistance and protest. “Offering Life” depicts a mother with her child, highlighting the theme of maternal care that Catlett revisited throughout her career. “Offering Education” places women at the center as educators and nurturers of young children, underscoring their vital role in society.

Elizabeth Catlett’s legacy continues to inspire, reminding us of the ongoing fight for rights and dignity. Her sculptures, now showcased in Heritage Hall, serve as a poignant introduction to an artist who dedicated her work to uplifting society and advocating for the rights and dignity of all people. These sculptures bear witness to the enduring struggle for equality and serve as a tribute to the resilience and fortitude of Black women throughout history.

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