Guests at a preview of the exhibition Young Negro Art, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1943. From left: MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr., Elizabeth Catlett, associate curator of Painting and Sculpture Dorothy Miller, Charles White
Elizabeth Catlett. Mother and Child. 1956

Elizabeth Catlett. Mother and Child. 1956

Elizabeth Catlett’s terra cotta sculpture Mother and Child stands less than a foot off of its pedestal, but it feels much larger. It conveys an expansiveness that comes, to my mind, from the uncanny way that it seems both intimate and monumental at once. Intimacy lies in the way the weight of the child’s face presses against the mother’s breast, the mother’s right leg pushed back to stabilize her balance and her head nestled against the child’s scalp, breathing in that smell. Tenderness, both affectionate and shielding, is conveyed so keenly it almost aches. In Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, curator Anne Umland surmises that the work’s “particular quality of physicality...likely owes 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.” Catlett seems to capture, somehow, the idea of remembering something fleeting, the sculpture a tiny memorial to loving protection that cannot be maintained.

This wasn’t the first time Catlett had addressed the subject of motherhood. In 1941, for her thesis project as an MFA student at the University of Iowa, where she had enrolled to study with the famous regionalist painter Grant Wood, Catlett carved a limestone sculpture, now lost: it also focused on the figures of a Black mother cradling her child against her breast, two bodies brought into one volume. The work attracted the attention of intrepid MoMA curator Dorothy Miller while she was visiting the school, and it won first prize at the 1941 America Negro Exposition in Chicago. Yet despite the promise it revealed, the earlier sculpture conveys a different sensibility, seen across the divide of before and after the experiences that would make her the artist she would become.

It was made before the trip to the South that she took in 1941 with her first husband—the artist Charles White, who had been awarded a Rosenwald Foundation “genius” grant—where she witnessed the dehumanizing intensity of the American Jim Crow regime firsthand and vowed to raise awareness of it with her work. It was made before Catlett’s move to Mexico five years later, supported by a Rosenwald Foundation grant of her own, to create a series of prints on “the role of the Negro women in the fight for democratic rights in the history of the United States,” which gave her a new perspective on the long legacy of this country’s racism. And it was before she captured the attention of the US House Committee for Un-American Activities for her political activism at the height of McCarthyism in the late 1940s. Perhaps most importantly, it was made before Catlett’s own experience of motherhood with the three boys she birthed and raised with her beloved second husband, the Mexican artist Francisco Mora.

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.

Elizabeth Catlett. Mother and Child (lost sculpture). 1941

Elizabeth Catlett. Mother and Child (lost sculpture). 1941

Howard University protesters wear nooses around their necks to protest lynching, Washington, DC, 1934

Howard University protesters wear nooses around their necks to protest lynching, Washington, DC, 1934

Catlett returned to the US briefly after her fellowship year to secure her divorce from White and to show the print series and other work at her first solo show organized by the Barnett-Aden Gallery in Washington, DC. Concerned about being summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, she quickly went back to Mexico, this time permanently—one among the many African American writers and artists who chose self-exile in response to US racism and political purges of the left. Interviewing her years later, scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. asked Catlett why she decided to become a Mexican citizen. She replied that in Mexico, “I was just a woman; I didn’t have to be a Black woman.”

It is difficult for me, given this context, to imagine that in making her Mother and Child in 1956, Catlett didn’t intend for it to carry an international political resonance. The year before, 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose family had moved north to Chicago, went to spend the summer with relatives in Money, Mississippi, and was kidnapped and lynched. “When I began to make the announcement that Emmett had been found and how he was found, the whole house began to scream and to cry,” recalled his mother Mamie Till. “And that’s when I realized that this was a load that I was going to have to carry. I wouldn’t get any help carrying this load.” Determined that the world should know what happened to her son, Mamie Till rejected attempts to pass over or cover up the brutality of his murder: she allowed photographs of his young face, beaten beyond recognition, to be published in Jet magazine, and insisted that his body be brought home to be displayed in a glass-topped casket in Chicago, where it was seen by tens of thousands who joined her to bear witness. Emmett Till’s murder, and the international attention it attracted through Mamie Till’s actions, became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement. Catlett’s sculpture evokes this strength of purpose, as well as the longing to hold close those whom we love, and to keep them safe through the armoring force of our devotion.

Now these decades later, we have heard young Black men call for their mothers while facing contemporary forms of lynching. Many mothers, walking in the footsteps of Mamie Till, have turned into activists determined to speak forthrightly, to seek justice, and to prevent what happened to their children from happening to others. In Catlett’s work, we can find the memorial we need today.

Sources and related reading:
Elizabeth Alexander, “The Trayvon Generation,” The New Yorker, June 15, 2020.
Perrin Lathrop, “Elizabeth Catlett, Mother and Child (1956),” “African American Artists and the Museum,” Museum Research Consortium Dossier no. 3, pp. 22-26.
Samella Lewis, The Art of Elizabeth Catlett (Los Angeles: Handcraft Studios in collaboration with The Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles), 1984.
Anne Umland, “Elizabeth Catlett,” in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art), pp. 158-59.