Elizabeth Catlett has said that the purpose of her art is to “present black people in their beauty and dignity for ourselves and others to understand and enjoy.” As a sculptor and printmaker, she blends figurative and abstract traditions with social concerns, and has maintained a deep belief in the democratic power of printed art to reach a large audience. She has completed some eighty prints in woodcut, screenprint, lithography, and, most importantly, linoleum cut, a technique she learned at El Taller de Gráfica Popular (People’s Graphic Workshop). This renowned workshop and artists’ collective was first visited by Catlett while she was in Mexico City on a fellowship in 1946. The workshop’s aim is to continue the Mexican tradition of socially engaged public art. It specializes in linoleum cut, as it is a technique that is easy to work with, produces inexpensive prints, and can accommodate large editions.
Catlett’s attraction to Mexican printmaking reflects a social and political concern she shares with the great muralists. Like them she uses her art to advance causes of particular interest to her, including the African-American experience and the plight of the lower classes. Many of her prints show the multidimensional aspects of women as mothers, workers, and activists. Sharecropper evokes Catlett’s belief in the strength and dignity of the working poor, while it also offers a heroic portrait of this anonymous woman. She also depicts great women from African-American history, including Harriet Tubman, who is shown leading slaves to freedom as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Catlett’s continued support of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s is visible in the print completed after Malcolm X was shot and killed. It expresses Catlett’s enthusiasm for the leader’s successful efforts in inspiring pride in African-American women.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Harper Montgomery and Sarah Suzuki, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 218.