Elizabeth Catlett. Photo by The Bearmaiden. https://tinyurl.com/y4exchs5

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Elizabeth Catlett and the Black Female Gaze

I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.

—Toni Morrison, Sula (1974)


The social and political climate of the 1980s engendered an influx of cultural production from African American women that communicated the multifaceted nature of the oppression they faced in American society. When asked what she thought about women in the arts in a 1981 interview, artist Elizabeth Catlett states:

But women have always been involved in the arts. Black women in Africa, they are the ones that did that piecework, quilting, brought it to the United States. . . . What I feel is that women have to fight for their opportunity. . . . Black women have been cast in the role of carrying on the survival of Black people through their position as mothers and wives, protecting and educating and stimulating children and Black men. We can learn from [B]lack women. They have had to struggle for centuries. I feel that we have so much more to express and that we should demand to be heard and demand to be seen because we know and feel and can express so much, [and] contribute so much aesthetically.[i]

Affirming the history of Black women in the arts and declaring that Black women “demand” to have their visualizations of identity recognized as their particular truths, Catlett confirms and encourages the various ways in which Black women’s art blatantly confronts the spurious discourses that define Black female identity as aberrant. Catlett, who in the 1980s was finally gaining prominence as an American artist after a career that spanned more than thirty-five years, was well educated in the adverse effects the combination of racism, sexism, and patriarchy had on African American women, especially those working as professional visual artists. Though her professional circumstances expose how the complexities of Black womanhood are historically understood through categories of race, class, gender, and sexuality, Catlett suggests that the difficulties of Black female selfhood—being at once human, artist, Black, and woman—are graver issues that require further exploration and nuanced investigation. In her brief statement, she recognizes the intellectual and cultural wealth of Black women’s experiences, while subtly acknowledging that the strictures of race, class, sexuality, and gender in Western society have stifled and rendered those experiences invisible.

For more than seventy years Elizabeth Catlett’s elegant sculpture and energetic print work penetrated and transformed the American art world, illustrating art’s crucial function as a catalyst for social and political change. Outlining what curator Isolde Brielmaier describes as the “beauty, aesthetic excellence, conceptual strength, and inventive stance of Catlett’s work throughout time,”[ii] this essay takes a close look at Catlett’s 1946–47 linoleum cut series The Negro (Black) Woman to examine the various ways she images the history and culture of African American women.

Catlett became the chair of the art department at Dillard University from 1940 to 1942, where she taught printmaking, drawing, art history, and painting; in the summer of 1941, however, she worked and studied at the Southside Community Center in Chicago. Here, she became fully acquainted with the visual and literary artists of the Black Chicago Renaissance. Working closely alongside Margaret Burroughs, Eldzier Cortor, Charles White (whom she later married and divorced), Margaret Walker (who was her roommate while she studied at the University of Iowa and her life-long friend), and several others, Catlett became fully immersed in the tenets of social realist art, socialism, and communism. The Chicago artists were greatly influenced by Marxism, and the role of the Black worker in American society was crucial to their work. They were committed to the belief that art should provide a tangible function for the African American community. Some were dedicated social realists, while others used modernist aesthetics to create art that communicated universal ideas through Black experiences. Many of these artists were members of the Communist Party, believing that communism as an ideological and political tool offered the best solution to both racial discrimination and class subordination. They utilized Black Chicago in their art as a metaphor to help explain broader issues of social, political, and cultural oppression. From Chicago she went on to New York to study abstraction with modernist sculptor Ossip Zadkine, and, from 1944 to 1946, she taught working- and lower-class Blacks at the George Washington Carver School. Working with students in New York broadened Catlett’s awareness of the Black experience in America as these students reiterated her mother’s experiences as a social worker.

From the time she entered college social and political activism was an essential aspect of Catlett’s personal and professional life. She participated in antifascist and antiwar activities at Howard University, and she participated in protests demanding higher wages for schoolteachers while working in Durham, North Carolina. She challenged segregation in New Orleans by supporting a group of Dillard students who were wrongly arrested for removing the “For Colored Only” signs on a city bus. She also took her students to a Picasso exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art that was located in an area inadmissible for African Americans. These activities served as the fulcrum upon which her Marxist and socialist ideals operated. Her work in social realism with Black Chicago artists reinforced these ideals, but it was her work at the Carver School, a Popular Front school led by the Communist Party, that brought her social and political activism to artistic realization.

At the Carver School Catlett worked primarily with Black women, teaching them artistic practices from a Marxist perspective. In 1991, she told her biographer, art historian Melanie Anne Herzog, that these sessions gave her the basis for what she wanted to do as an artist.[iii] Prior to working with these women, Catlett did not identify herself with the working and poor classes of African Americans, despite the substantial influence of her mother on her development as an artist. Yet, after teaching and learning from her students at the Carver school, Catlett solidified depictions of lower- and working-class Black women’s empowerment and self-making as another crucial aspect of her work. From here, she dedicated her career to powerful artistic representations of everyday Black women, which was conspicuously centralized within The Negro Woman, 1946–47.

In 1946, a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald fund allowed Catlett to travel to Mexico, where she established herself as a permanent resident in 1947. In Mexico she began her acclaimed graphic work at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, met her second husband, Francisco Mora, who preceded her in death in 2002, and gave birth to her three sons, Francisco, Juan, and David Mora. Very familiar with how Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros influenced American art, Catlett was eager to work with the socially active artists at the Taller. However, her activities there made her a target of the vicious postwar, anti-Communist, political environment that buttressed the Cold War and McCarthyism. She experienced aggressive political scrutiny by the U.S. government (through the House Un-American Activities Committee and the U.S. embassy in Mexico) throughout the 1950s, which forced her to become a Mexican citizen in 1962. She quickly incorporated into The Negro Woman what she learned from the Black Chicago and Taller artists’ commitment to making art for the people. In this series, Catlett employs social realism as the stylistic vehicle through which she images the plight of poor and working-class Black women. From an African American feminist perspective, Catlett’s images serve as reconstructed American history and function as cultural memory for an international audience.

The Negro Woman uncovers the complex ways in which African American women visually survey and confront the malignancies threatening Black female identity. Again, Catlett centralizes the figure’s gaze and Black women’s history to confront the viewing public. Her deft use of line and perspective are then strategic design elements that elucidate Black women’s autonomy, subjectivity, personal empowerment, and self-making while offering audiences more accurate representations of African American women’s experiences and their history. Therefore, just as several African American women artists before her, Catlett participates in an artistic methodology that centers Black women’s material realities and challenges mainstream visual conceptualizations of their identities.

The Negro Woman series confronts viewers by simply making eye contact. One of the most crucial aspects of Western visual culture is the very act of looking, and various processes of looking have plagued African American women throughout history for they have always been viewed, yet never really seen. Meaning, historically Black women have largely been perceived, described, and defined in terms of their viewers’ own conceptualizations of Blackness. Elucidating this perception, Nicole Fleetwood states that “blackness troubles vision in Western discourse. And the troubling affect of blackness becomes heightened when located on certain bodies marked as such.”[iv] Arguing that the Black body is an always-already troubling presence to and within the dominant visual field, Fleetwood explains that the emotive difficulties evoked by visible Blackness are not necessarily inherent to the visible Black body itself; instead these troubling feelings emerge from the act of sight on part of the viewer, coupled with the performative aspects that are understood as Blackness.[v] To further historicize this point, at the height of slavery in North America, Harriet Jacobs explained the abuse that she and millions of other enslaved women continually experienced under the gaze of white viewers, particularly the slave master. Often resulting in concubinage, rape, and other violent forms of sexual assault, the slaveholder’s gaze circumscribed Black women into lives of sexual terror. Describing the fear of living within Dr. Flint’s constant watch, Jacobs states, “my master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, . . . [i]f I went out for a breath of fresh air, . . . his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there.”[vi]

If history is read only from the dominant culture’s perspective, it is easy to believe that Black women had no or very limited access to visual technologies that would provide them recourse to challenge this subjugation. Nevertheless, Stephanie Camp illuminates the various ways African American women subverted the slaveholder’s gaze by developing “rival geographies”—ways in which Black women stole their bodies away from their master’s gaze and created their own personal spaces, if only for a short period of time. She argues that enslaved African American women removed themselves from their master’s gaze by attending secret parties and dressing themselves in garments considered to be outside of the clothing designated for those in bondage.[vii] Thus, Catlett’s series resists American culture’s racist visuality in that it demonstrates how African American women artists use visual means to assert Black women’s autonomy, subjectivity, personal empowerment, and self-making.

The Negro Woman presents a much more direct look into the experiences of African American women living in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Catlett’s series is a set of sixteen linoleum cuts, and each plate speaks directly to an aspect of African American women’s lives from slavery to the late 1940s. When the plates’ titles are read collectively, an autobiographical narrative of the Black woman emerges:

I Am the Negro Woman, I Have Always Worked Hard in America, In the Fields, In Other Folks’ Homes, I Have Given the World My Songs, In Sojourner Truth I Fought for the Rights of Women as Well as Negroes, In Harriet Tubman I Helped Hundreds to Freedom, In Phillis Wheatley I Proved Intellectual Equality in the Midst of Slavery, My Role Has Been Important in the Struggle to Organize the Unorganized, I’ve Studied in Ever Increasing Numbers, My Reward Has Been Bars Between Me and the Rest of the Land, I Have Special Reservations, Special Houses, And a Special Fear for My Loved Ones, and My Right Is a Future of Equality with Other Americans.[viii]

This strategic titling maneuver layered within the images themselves, exposes three specific aspects that constitute Black women’s identity for Catlett—independence, the influence of Black Women’s History, and political activism. Here, Catlett places the viewer face-to-face with an African American woman and verbally inside this woman’s identity. Art historian Richard Powell states, “Catlett invites everyone—women, men, blacks, whites, whomever—to act as surrogate “Negro Women,” if only via the stating of each title” in the series.[ix] Through the use of the first person, Catlett proclaims that Black women identify and understand themselves as autonomous individuals. The very first plate in the series, entitled “I Am the Negro Woman,” depicts a young African American woman whose intense gaze into the distance suggests she is focused on the future. Through her powerful stare and furrowed brow, Catlett suggests confrontation, beautifully evoking the severity and sincerity of African American women who control their own destinies and who are determined to change their conditions in American society. Catlett clearly illustrates that this woman is focused on a distant objective, which could be the desire to challenge segregation. Catlett created this series in 1947 while on a Rosenwald fellowship in Mexico, the same year that CORE—Congress of Racial Equality—conducted the very first Freedom Ride, the Journey of Reconciliation. Though it was not as successful as the later Freedom Rides, the Journey of Reconciliation was CORE’s first attempt at peaceful direct action aimed to dismantle Jim Crow segregation of public transportation in the upper south.

In “I Have Always Worked Hard in America,” “In Other Folks’ Homes,” and “I Have Given the World My Songs,” Catlett exhibits the tremendous strength of African American women who have worked and sang to support and empower themselves, their families, and their communities. Catlett raises African American women from the subordinate status racist discourses designated to them and presents her characters as large figures who dominate the foreground of each linocut. She skillfully renders African American women who appear prodigious within the frame, their large bodies representing the significance of the African American female working class. This indicates the immeasurable contributions African American women have given to the dominant society without recompense. Historian Jacqueline Jones expresses this perspective on the experiences of working-class African American women:

Black women’s work took place within two distinct spheres that were at the same time mutually reinforcing and antagonistic. One workplace was centered in their own homes and communities. . . . In contrast to this type of work . . . participation in the paid labor force (or slave economy) reinforced their subordinate status as women and as [B]lacks within American society. Because of their doubly disadvantaged status, [B]lack women were confined to two types of work that seemed ironically contradictory—the first was domestic and institutional service, vindictively termed women’s work; the other was manual labor so physically arduous it was usually considered men’s work.[x]

Catlett’s deft precision creates realistic images of African American women, making pain, strength, struggle, and hope easily identifiable upon the faces of her subjects. She presents working-class African American women in the post-emancipation era, but contrary to Western images of Black women during this time, Catlett’s linocuts reveal the grueling and tiresome reality of freed women’s lives. Her subjects are not the merrily grinning mammies who plague American collective memory. Instead, Catlett visualizes the contradictory working conditions Jones describes. In this way, Catlett visually “re-makes”[xi] the dominant culture’s oppositional history by accurately representing what the status of second-class American citizenship looked like for African American women. In “I Have Given the World My Songs,” she confirms that African American women sang the blues as a way to ease the rigors of their work and oppression. The figure’s downcast gaze coupled with her guitar playing suggests that she is employing the blues as an artistic vessel to release the stress of her life. These hardships are represented in the upper right corner, where the imagery of a lynching evokes the essence of history and memory. Catlett’s use of perspective along with her background placement of the lynching implies distance, suggesting scenes from a violent past. Thus, Catlett’s multilayered design and composition of the linocut illustrates how lynching is a part of both the figure’s personal memories and the collective African American experience.

In Special Houses we meet the figure on the left eye to eye as she stands before her housing tenement. Throughout the 1940s, Catlett was a frequent visitor of Chicago’s Southside Community Center. There she studied and socialized with many of the artists from the Black Chicago Renaissance, most notably Margaret Burroughs, the founder of the DuSable Museum; writer Margaret Walker, who was also her colleague at Iowa; and her first husband Charles White, who is very well known for his social realist images. While in Chicago, Catlett experienced firsthand the struggles of African American women living in urban ghettoes. She communicates those struggles through a prominent subtext within this figure’s gaze that not only confronts the white gaze and its racist visuality, but again the figure returns her own gaze suggesting that African American women are looking back at the larger society, seeing white privilege, discrimination, and racial violence in a country that promotes freedom and justice for all. Though the second figure’s gaze is cast downward, the precision with which Catlett has etched her jawline visualizes the anger and exhaustion African American women living under these conditions are faced with every day. Catlett’s artistic skill also emphasizes the physical and emotional burdens that come along with economic oppression.

Catlett’s strategic titling maneuver also reveals the importance of African American women’s history to the formation of Black women’s identity. Upon meeting the gaze of the central figure in “My Role Has Been Important in the Struggle to Organize the Unorganized,” audiences literally see how African American women’s historical experiences have influenced their identity as active agents of change both politically and socially. She depicts a courageous Black woman organizing her community with her left fist raised to the sky while confronting two white men. Moreover, this image appears in sequence after images of American history’s most recognized Black women: Phillis Wheatley, Harriet Tubman, and most important for this study, Sojourner Truth. By including Truth here, Catlett emphasizes the importance of Truth’s work to both the anti-slavery cause and Black women’s command of the American visual sphere. She signifies Truth’s self-portraits, depicting her as a strong, respectable, autonomous figure who is also literate and powerful, as she stands at a podium with the Bible open in front of her. Rendered as an orator, Catlett points Truth’s right index finger upward to indicate the direction she intended to take both herself and the various communities of women and Blacks for which she fought so hard. In this way, Catlett layers Truth’s professional, visual, and performative histories within a two-dimensional design and pictorial sequence that links Black women’s historical actions in both the visual and political realms to her own contemporary moment. She stresses that the experiences of African American women like Truth, women who were renowned American writers, abolitionist/feminist leaders, and political agents, directly contributed to the history of the Black female organizer represented in plate 10. Therefore, Catlett is literally visualizing how African American women’s historical experiences have shaped the various ways in which Black women were politically active in the late 1940s. This image’s significance is further grounded in the fact that it was an early communication of Catlett’s socialist and communist beliefs and her staunch support of unions. Moreover, the series does not simply present a different historical narrative regarding African American women; it confronts and corrects the mythologies surrounding Black women’s identities. Thus, through these six images she covers a three-hundred-year time period, showing that African American women have been present and functioning as much more than hottentots and mammies throughout America’s existence.

Catlett’s figures and their gazes serve as a means of self-reclamation and communicate that Black female identities are much more than racist visuality implies. Her figures return a gaze of their own, claiming Black female sovereignty and functioning to undermine, defy, and ultimately subvert the visual subjugation of the white gaze. Though Catlett’s work stood firmly within modernist aesthetics, it remained outside racist, modernist discourses regarding Black women’s identity, literally creating its own visual discourse. Hence, the final print in Catlett’s series depicts a young Black woman asserting her right to equal treatment as both an American citizen and human being.



[i] Interview with Glory Van Scott, December 8, 1981 (New York, NY: Hatch Billops Collection, 1991), 15.

[ii] Isolde Brielmaier, Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation with Sanford Biggers, iona rozeal brown, Patty Chang, et al. (New York: The Bronx Museum of the Arts, 2010), 64.

[iii] Melanie Ann Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 39.

[iv] Nicole Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 6.

[v] Ibid., 6–7.

[vi] Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 28.

[vii] Stephanie M. H. Camp, Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 60–92.

[viii] Lisa E. Farrington, Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 123.

[ix] Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett, 59.

[x] Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York: Random House, 1985), 3–4.

[xi] bell hooks, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York: The New Press, 1995), 95. This idea of Black women artists re-making and re-membering history is barrowed from hooks’s analysis of Lorna Simpson’s photography.