Elizabeth Catlett and Her Fight Against Prejudice

 

Elizabeth Catlett, Mahalia Jackson
Left: installation, Louis Armstrong Park, approximately 10 feet high, picture: mikestravelguide.com
Right: bronze maquette, 36 1/2 x 18 x 10 inches, available for purchase


“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.”

 

Located in the Tremé neighborhood, directly across the French Quarter in New Orleans, is Louis Armstrong Park. This park, once known as Beauregard Square, has an incredible history dating back to the late 18th century. During that time, when the Spanish brought slaves to New Orleans, they believed that Sunday was the day of rest and allowed the slaves the one day off a week as well. It was on these Sundays in Congo Square that both enslaved and free African Americans could meet, talk in their native tongues, sell and trade goods, and even practice Voodoo. The most celebrated aspect of these meetings were the singing, dancing and playing of the instruments of their homelands. Tourists and locals would gather to see this true immersion into African culture, which is said to be the birthplace of Jazz music.

The park, which has since been renamed to honor Louis Armstrong, has been celebrated for its musical roots ever since, culminating in the construction of a performing arts center named after the "Queen of Gospel Music," Mahalia Jackson. Above is the sculpture created by Elizabeth Catlett, who also created the sculpture of Louis Armstrong in the same park, celebrating, who Harry Belafonte called, "the single most powerful black woman in the United States." Mahalia Jackson sold a dozen gold albums and was an intrigral part of the Civil Rights Movement, performing a concert during the bus boycott in Montgomery and singing alongside Dr. Martin Luther King before his famous I Have a Dream speech, even prompting him by yelling, "tell them about the dream Martin!"

Mujer Sentada, c. 2003, bronze sculpture, 17 1/2 x 6 x 9 inches, signed with monogram

Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) was a student of Grant Wood (of American Gothic fame) who instructed Catlett to create sculpture based on what she knew best, so she created abstracted sculptures of African American women and children. Whether working in wood, stone, bronze, or clay, Catlett reveals an extraordinary technical virtuosity, a natural ability to meld her curving female forms with the grain, color, or luster of her chosen medium. The beauty of her subjects is matched by the beauty she reveals in her materials.

A daughter of freed slaves, her expressions of human form are rooted in the racial biases and prejudices she encountered during her lifetime. An early example being her acceptance into the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, along with a scholarship, would not allow her to matriculate after learning she was black. She instead attended Howard University and graduated cum laude in 1935.

In addition to the African American women she knew in her life, her influences span a wide range from Pre-Columbian sculptures, to the reclining nudes of Henry Moore, as well as the politically charged murals of Diego Rivera.

Star Gazer, 1997, black marble sculpture, 14 1/2 x 32 x 11 inches


Glory, 1981, bronze sculpture, 14 x 9 1/2 x 10 inches


Seated Mother and Child, bronze sculpture, 16 x 6 x 6 inches

Vallarino Fine Art is pleased to have more examples of Elizabeth Catlett and and other important African American artists in our inventory. We are always interested in buying similar works as well. Please contact the gallery for pricing or to offer artworks.


More information on Louis Armstrong Park can be found on the African American Registry website here.
Additional information on the sculptures by Elizabeth Catlett in Louis Armstrong Park can be found in this article here.
Jazz in the Park is an ongoing concert series and a calendar of events can be found here.
A review of Elizabeth Catlett Sculpture: A50-Year Retrospective at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, 735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase, N.Y., April through June, 1998 can be found here.


FURTHER READING AND WATCHING

WATCH an excerpt from the documentary entitled, Elizabeth Catlett: Sculpting the Truth produced and sold through L&S Productions, which can be purchased here

READ Elizabeth Catlett's obituary in the New York Times

WATCH the live performance of "How I Got Over," one of the songs sung at the 1963 March on Washington