Exhibition on iconic 20th-century artist opens October 14
The Columbia Museum of Art announces featured fall exhibition The Art of Elizabeth Catlett: From the Collection of Samella Lewis, on view Friday, October 14, 2022, through Sunday, January 22, 2023. Organized by Landau Traveling Exhibitions, Los Angeles, California, and the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the exhibition celebrates Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012), a sculptor and printmaker widely considered to be one of the most important African American artists of the last century.
“Catlett was an exceptional artist, equally attentive to both form and content,” says CMA Curator Michael Neumeister. “You could track many of the major social shifts of the 20th century through the lens of her work. It is energizing to bring that to Columbia.”
Drawn from the personal collection of artist and art historian Dr. Samella Lewis (1923–2022), the exhibition features more than 30 prints and sculptures and honors a half-century of Catlett’s artistic activism in support of women, African Americans, and Mexican laborers. Using a stylized Modernist approach to figurative works, Catlett addresses themes including Black identity, motherhood, civil rights, and labor — issues she tackled with more freedom by emigrating permanently to Mexico.
The granddaughter of enslaved people, Catlett was born amidst segregation in Washington, D.C. Her father died prior to her birth, and she was raised in the orbit of supportive and nurturing women: her mother, a trained educator who worked as a truant officer to provide for her children, and her maternal grandmother, who communicated the horrors of slavery from the perspective of a survivor.
Catlett’s family stressed the importance of education and encouraged her artistic ambitions. She studied art as an undergraduate at Howard University, the first Historically Black University to offer such a program. At the University of Iowa, she trained with Regionalist painter Grant Wood and was awarded the school’s first Master of Fine Arts in sculpture in 1940.
Catlett chaired the art department at New Orleans’ Dillard University — where she met, taught, and befriended Lewis — before embarking on further studies in Chicago and New York. She left the United States for Mexico in 1946, where she married the artist Francisco Mora and joined the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a communal printmaking workshop that engaged Mexican political affairs. Catlett taught sculpture at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas in Mexico City until retiring in 1975.
The Art of Elizabeth Catlett presents an overview of Catlett’s career as a printmaker and sculptor and incorporates works by her peers, mentors, and students, including Lewis and Mora.
CMA members are invited to preview the exhibition on Thursday, October 13, at the Members’ Opening Celebration. The evening features Wendell Brown — fiber artist, associate professor of art, and director of the Henry Ponder Gallery at Benedict College — in conversation with Jackie Adams, CMA director of art and learning. They will discuss Brown’s formative years working with both Catlett and Lewis during his time as director of art education at Hampton University, among other topics surrounding the featured artist.
Organized by Landau Traveling Exhibitions, Los Angeles, CA, and the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Pittsburgh, PA.
The Art of Elizabeth Catlett: From the Collection of Samella Lewis is presented through the support of our generous sponsors and grantors. Supporting Sponsors: Dominion Energy; Susan Thorpe and John Baynes. Contributing Sponsors: 6AM City. Friend Sponsors: Dr. and Mrs. Allen J. Coles, III; Friends of African American Art & Culture; Ann Marie Stieritz and John Carran. Patron Sponsors: Alana and Hamilton Grant; Mrs. Waltene V. Whitmire; Cathy and Mike Love. Grantors: City of Columbia; Richland County Government; South Carolina Arts Commission; South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism.