The theme of Mother and Child is universal across cultures and times, but the faces are ethnically specific, including tenderly detailed aspects of Black physiognomies such as tightly curled hair, broad noses, and full lips. The body of the mother, by contrast, is generalized: despite its small size, it has the gravity and weight of one of Michelangelo’s sibyls, or, closer to Catlett, of the monumental, muscular types seen in the paintings of Catlett’s contemporaries the Mexican muralists. To model the work, Catlett used coils of terra-cotta to create a hollow form—a pre-Hispanic method that she learned from the artist Francisco Zúñiga. The asymmetry of the mother’s pose contributes to the sculpture’s dynamism, while her downturned gaze and particular quality of physicality—its private, protective, introspective tenderness—likely owe to Catlett’s own experience as a mother: the impression is less of a model observed than of memories of what it feels like to cradle the weight of a child.
Publication excerpt from Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)