Elizabeth Catlett (Associated Press/Michael A. Mariant)
MEXICO CITY (AP) - Sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett, a U.S. expatriate renowned for her dignified portrayals of African-American and Mexican women who was barred from her home country for political activism during the McCarthy era, has died. She was 96.
Maria Antonieta Alvarez, Catlett's daughter-in-law, said the artist died Monday in the house in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she had lived for the past 30 years.
Born in Washington D.C., Catlett moved to Mexico in 1946, became friends with great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and others in his circle, and married Mexican artist Francisco Mora.
She became known for her commitment to winning greater rights for blacks, women and workers in the United States and her adopted country. Catlett witnessed almost every important artistic and social movement of the 20th century and traveled in some of the same illustrious circles as the great American artist Jacob Lawrence and poet Langston Hughes.
She was arrested during a railroad workers' protest in Mexico City in 1958 and in 1962 the U.S. State Department banned her from returning to the United States for nearly a decade.
Working in wood, stone and other natural materials, she produced simple, flowing sculptures of women, children and laborers, and prints of Mexicans and black Americans that she used to promote social justice.
Catlett was raised by her mother, a teacher, because her father, who was also a teacher, had died before her birth. She said she knew from age 6 that she wanted to be an artist.
As a graduate student, she studied in Iowa with Grant Wood, the painter of the iconic "American Gothic," who told his young student to make art about what she knew best.
She took his advice to heart and began making images of strong and beautiful black women, making signature issues of racial identity, family dynamics and social and political struggle.
The Mexican National Council f or Culture and Arts said that throughout her career Catlett demonstrated "her interest in social justice and the rights of black and Mexican women."
With its formal beauty and universal themes, Catlett's artwork drew much of its form and emotional energy from her investigation of racial and ethnic identity.
Catlett said that Harriet Tubman and singer and actor Paul Robeson - two icons of black freedom - inspired her, and that she wanted to express herself in art as Robeson had done in music and drama.
The smooth, stylized faces she sculpted were less about individual people and more about the dignity and nobility of universal man, woman and child - sculpture that's meant to comfort, uplift and inspire.
Her prints expressed her lifelong commitment to use art as a tool for social change, often incorporating the slogans ("Black Is Beautiful") and revolutionary heroes (Angela Davis and Malcolm X) of the civil rights and black power movements.
Catlett is survived by three sons, 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, her family said. The family said her remains would be cremated in a private ceremony and would remain in Mexico.
ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON
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