All of these experiences seem to register in the 1956 sculpture. Catlett learned the terra cotta technique she deploys here—building a hollow form from coils of clay—from the artist Francisco Zuñiga at La Esmeralda, the government-run art school in Mexico City. (The technique had been in use since before the Spanish arrived.) The soft clay allowed the definition of features signaling Black identity, yet they don’t seem to define an individual’s physiognomy as much as signal the collective “we” of Black sisterhood. And despite the work’s diminutive scale there is a new, monumental quality to the bodies. For Anne Umland, the solidity of form seen in this tiny sculpture recalls the weighty limbs of Michelangelo’s Sibyls, the prophets that appear within the ornamental frames at the borders of his ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. Catlett’s work may carry an equally prophetic quality: it’s hard not to also think of Michelangelo’s Pieta, in which the Virgin Mother holds the body of her adult son across her lap, looking down with devotion and sadness.
I’ve studied Social Realism for many years, and to me the rounded form, muscular limbs, and firm stance also evoke Soviet monuments, as well as the figures that populated Diego Rivera’s murals. These two things were indeed linked: Rivera shared political affiliations with the Communist Party, and traveled to the Soviet Union in 1928 as a representative of the Mexican Communist Party. On his return, Rivera carried the language of Soviet-style Socialist Realism into Mexican Muralism as a signal of revolutionary commitment.
In Mexico, Catlett joined the Taller de Gráfica Popular (the People’s Print Workshop), placing herself at the center of Mexico’s leftist circles. The Taller de Gráfica Popular was founded in 1937 (not long after the Soviet Union announced their commitment to Socialist Realism as an official style) by Leopoldo Méndez, Pablo O’Higgins, and Luis Arenal, all members of the Mexican Communist Party. The printmaking collective made presses, tools, acids, and inks accessible to all to facilitate the emergence of a new working class artist who would create inexpensive, reproducible art for revolutionary change—championing the poor, denouncing Western imperialism and economic exploitation, and calling out hypocrisy. It was as much a discussion group as a workshop. Catlett recalled, “People would come to the workshop if they had problems: if the students were on strike; or trade unions had labor disputes, or if peasants had problems with their land, they would come into the workshop and ask for something to express their concerns. We would then have collective discussion about what symbolism would be effective to express those concerns.”
The series that Catlett created at the printshop, The Negro Woman (1946–47), consisted of 15 linocuts (prints cut into linoleum) that read in a sequence, following the opening image—a close-up of a woman’s face—captioned with the first-person statement, “I am a Negro Woman.” Images of domestic workers and a sharecropper—accompanied by the caption “I have always worked hard in America”—as well as those of activists followed. The penultimate sheet, And a Special Fear for My Loved Ones, was an especially pointed indictment that framed lynching as a special burden borne by Black women. (Federal anti-lynching legislation proposed since WWI had failed time and again; among its most outspoken champions were the NAACP and the American Communist Party, and Catlett had participated in NAACP-organized protests with other Howard University students, a cadre of promising youth standing silently and still in front of the Supreme Court with nooses draped around their necks.) Yet in this series that paid homage to the contributions, everyday heroism, and resilience of Black women, there was no image of motherhood.