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Artist, Social Justice Activist Dies At 96

Apr 5, 2012
Originally published on April 6, 2012 6:49 am
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we'd like to take a moment to remember a legend in the art world. Elizabeth Catlett died this week. Her depictions of African-American women, famous ones like Harriet Tubman, as well as anonymous women in their everyday lives, are in galleries around the world. Catlett has been described as the matriarch of modernist sculpture for her smooth and simple yet powerful pieces.

Late last year, she told NPR she wasn't so sure she agreed with that statement.

ELIZABETH CATLETT: I'm not the matriarch. I don't know who the matriarch is. I really don't know. I know it's not me.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Catlett was the granddaughter of slaves, and that legacy had a lasting impact on her life and her work. Her art was highly political. She moved to Mexico in the 1940s. From there she supported the civil rights struggle back in the U.S. and also addressed political scandals in Latin America.

Her art and activism caught the attention of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s. She was denied admission back into the U.S. for nearly a decade after the government labeled her an undesirable alien. Despite the government's scrutiny, Catlett never became a well-known public figure.

CATLETT: I, as an artist, a black woman - artists have been invisible in the art world for years.

MARTIN: And her lesson for other artists?

CATLETT: I hope they would learn to put in their best effort. They would learn to keep a contract on time. What else? Do a good job so they get another one.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Catlett was 96 years old. She leaves behind three sons, 10 grandchildren and six great-children. She died Monday in her home in Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.