Elizabeth Catlett, a sculptor and printmaker who is widely considered one of the most important African-American artists of the 20th Century, despite having lived most of her life in Mexico, has died. She was 96.
Catlett, whose sculptures became symbols of the civil rights movement, died Monday at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, said her eldest son, Francisco.
Confident that art could foster social change, Catlett confronted the most disturbing injustices against African Americans, including lynchings and beatings. One of her best-known sculptures, “Target” (1970), was created after police shot a Black Panther; it shows a black man’s head framed by a rifle sight.
But she also made far more hopeful statements with lithographs and sculptures of subjects ranging from Harriet Tubman to Angela Davis.
After moving to Mexico in the 1940s to study ceramics, she remained committed to African-American causes but also took up the struggles of Mexican workers. She referred to “my two people” and sometimes blended their physical features in her art.
In Mexico City, she quickly found soul mates in the Taller de Grafica Popular, a collective known for mass-produced posters supporting populist causes. She married fellow artist Francisco Mora in the late 1940s.
The collective’s left-leaning political affiliations partly led the U.S. government to declare Catlett an “undesirable alien” in 1959. Throughout the 1960s, she was denied a U.S. visa, a development that — combined with her race — made her a relatively obscure figure in mainstream American art.
The granddaughter of freed slaves, Catlett was born April 15, 1915, in Washington, D.C., and was a graduate of Howard University. She is survived by three sons, 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.