2022 Acquisition Highlight Elizabeth Catlett, Naima
by Jeremiah William McCarthy, Chief Curator
I felt my work should do something for Black women because nobody was interested in them at that time . . . [the 1940s] . . .Black working women . . . to show the beauty and strength and determination of our people. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.Elizabeth Catlett, aged ninety-four, speaking at MoMA in 2009
Elizabeth Catlett’s Naima is the newest work to enter the collection of The Westmoreland, and my first acquisition for the Museum. The subject of this sculpture is Catlett’s granddaughter, model Naima Mora—a rare instance where Catlett worked from a known model rather than the archetypes she typically creates in her sculptures.
The “queen of the arts,” as poet Maya Angelou once called her, Catlett was born in Washington, DC, in 1915. A prodigious talent, she won a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh but would enroll at Howard University after Carnegie refused to accept a Black woman. At Howard, Loïs Mailou Jones—painter and, later, leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance—taught her design, and art historian James Porter—who would become a lifelong friend—taught her drawing. In 1938, she moved to Iowa City to study at the University of Iowa. There, she would find a mentor in Grant Wood, painter of American Gothic fame, and develop the subject that would occupy her work for more than seven decades: ennobling and edifying abstracted and idealized images of women and community.
Catlett’s was a life of firsts. To name just a few: Her MFA in sculpture was the first such degree granted by the University of Iowa. Her first mature work and thesis project, a limestone mother and child, won first prize in sculpture at the 1941 American Negro Exposition in Chicago. And, in 1958, Catlett became the first woman professor in the National University of Mexico’s School of Fine Arts. Because of Catlett’s activist work, she was barred from returning to the United States after a period of study in Mexico. Although she renounced her American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen in 1962, Catlett continued to produce sculptures and prints that centered the history and lived experience of African Americans. In 2002, her U.S. citizenship was reinstated. Perhaps the artist’s greatest strength was to employ the language of modernism and the Western tradition—a legacy that for so long had ignored the artistic contributions of Black and women artists—to create recognizable forms that advocate for her self-identified African American and Mexican communities, while, at the same time, bespeaking a shared humanity.
At nearly one hundred years old, Catlett passed away in 2012. The range of her mastery across materials—bronze, clay, and various stones and woods—is nearly matchless. The sculpture will feature prominently in the Museum’s new installation of its permanent collection galleries. I hope you find much to enjoy!