Photo courtesy of Francisco Mora Catlett
ome African-American artists create art for art's sake. Others do it for money or fame. Still others make art as a commitment to serve Black people.
Elizabeth Catlett falls firmly in the latter category. Nothing says commitment like continuing to produce art at age 96.
She's sculpted the archetypal loving African-American mother and child many times over, portrayed the Black sharecropper with undeniable dignity, created powerful prints of our most fierce leaders like Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X and Angela Davis, and immortalized-just last year-the incomparable singer Mahalia Jackson in the form of a 10-foot statue now in New Orleans.
That's a minute sampling of the work Catlett has produced, all the while speaking, and acting, against injustice. Over the course of her life it's had consequences, like getting arrested and being denied entry into the country of her birth.
From her long-time home in Mexico, Catlett describes her living legacy in simple terms: "The explanation of our position [and] what we need to do about it."
This extraordinary granddaughter of slaves has been boldly expressing opinions and practicing her craft on behalf of her people for nearly a century. Although she never lived in Detroit, her legacy is uniquely, deeply imprinted on this city. The native Washingtonian's energy and lifestyle of creating art with and for community rumbled into town in the mid-1970s embodied in Francisco Mora Catlett, her first-born son.
"Sculptor, printmaker and painter Elizabeth Catlett has been a trailblazer for African-American artists," says Patrina Chapman, the Charles H. Wright Museum's curator of exhibitions. "To say that Catlett is important within the canon of African-American art might be an understatement. She has been one of the most prominent artists of the 20th century."
As an activist-artist, she has been uncompromising. "Within the canon of African-American art, Elizabeth Catlett is extremely important for her achievement in consistently developing powerful sculptures and prints that demonstrate her skillful balancing of aesthetics with social and political concerns," says Valerie Mercer, curator and department head of the DIA's General Motors Center for African American Art.
"She built an impressive body of work emphasizing women as her dominant subject for the purpose of improving their circumstances. The fact that the women depicted in Catlett's art throughout her career are often obviously African-American or women of color, makes her approach distinct because such a steadfast commitment to this type of subject matter is unprecedented in art," Mercer adds. "Her talent and example as a professional artist continue to influence a new generation of artists."
Catlett's focus on Black women-those who have struggled for human rights or simply struggled to survive-certainly illuminates the experiences of many Detroiters, past and present. That such art is now in this city's museums is only part of her long footprint here.
From the '70s up through the early 2000s, consummate jazz drummer Mora Catlett was nurtured by and contributed to Detroit's Black community. He also connected the African Diaspora of Detroit with some of its Latin American branches. Now based in New York, he's still collaborating with Detroiters.
"I have roots in Detroit. Musicians in New York recognize me as musician from Detroit, not from Mexico," says Mora Catlett, 64, who was raised in Mexico City. "I have the right to claim I'm from Detroit. I have a responsibility to people in Detroit."
One of the many rare things about his mother is that she became an iconic African-American artist while living most of her adult life in Mexico. Born in 1915, Catlett first traveled there on a fellowship in 1946. The following year, it became her permanent home. Her late husband, Mexican national Francisco Mora, was also an artist.
Although Catlett worked collaboratively with Mexican artists over decades and created art featuring images of Mexican people, she never abandoned her primary focus: "To show the beauty of Black people, and to express the opinions and feelings of [the] Black woman in the United States."
On the issue of identity, her son is clear. "I am Black to begin with, with a Mexican father," says Mora Catlett, the oldest of three brothers. Born in 1947 at Freedmen's Hospital-now Howard University Hospital-in Washington, D.C., his birth certificate lists his father's race as Mexican, his mother's race as Negro and his race as Negro.
"When I grew up in Mexico, I was never Mexican enough. And then when I came to the states, because of my light skin tone, I'm not Black enough. White folks don't know who I am," he laughs. "But I know what I am."
Mora Catlett left Mexico to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1971. "I was very fortunate to meet people like Duke Ellington," he says. "I was really exposed to the African-American jazz musicians in Boston. That is what encouraged me."
Several years later, he says, "I established myself in Detroit. Detroit became a source of nourishment to understand what the Black community was all about." Over the years, he worked with dozens of local artists, such as jazz greats Marcus Belgrave and the late Kenny Cox.
Mora Catlett taught at a Detroit summer youth program through most of the 1980s and at Michigan State University throughout the 1990s. He toured with electronic music maestro Carl Craig, also in the '90s. And he formed his own bands.
"I had the opportunity of nourishing or giving ideas to some of the new great ones that came out of Detroit," says Mora Catlett, also a composer and arranger. "For example, [saxophonist] James Carter was in my original Afro Horn band, which performed at Baker's Keyboard Lounge. [Double bass player] Rodney Whitaker, his first album was with me." And Ali Jackson Jr., a son of musicians who attended the summer youth program, is now a drummer for Wynton Marsalis' Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Elizabeth Catlett would have influenced Detroit even if her son had never lived here. "I'm a huge fan of her work," says renowned jazz bass player Marion Hayden, who owns a rare artist's proof of Catlett's famous "Sharecropper" linoleum cut print. "She's been an extreme inspiration to me. My intention has been to write a piece in her honor."
Still, Hayden is delighted that Catlett affected Detroit even more directly through her son. "Francisco had a great sense of the importance of the community," she says. Hayden explains that Mora Catlett's years here enriched the city culturally and positively influenced many individuals personally and professionally.
"Musicians as family was very much a part of his concept," she says. "When we rehearsed at his house, it was always in the context of family."
Mora Catlett's wife at that time, Teresa Mora, was a vocalist who often rehearsed and performed with him. "They were always playing music and practicing in the basement," says Naima Mora, one of Mora Catlett's daughters, of her parents. "We always had musicians over and I remember helping my parents with music equipment, especially my dad with his drums."
Mora Catlett raised four daughters-Crystal, Ife, Nia and Naima-in Detroit. Naima, the season four winner of the "America's Next Top Model" reality TV show, is following her father's and grandmother's example of giving back to the community in her own way. In August, she came to Detroit from her new home of Los Angeles to lead a model clinic and judge a fashion design competition. Both events were part of the African World Festival.
She remembers hearing West African, Cuban and Mexican music, as well as jazz, throughout her youth. She was even named after a John Coltrane tune.
"I remember waking up really angry because he'd be playing records so loud you could hear them down the block and I was preteen who just wanted to sleep," says Mora, 27, of her perspective then. "I totally am so appreciative to have been given that upbringing."
Mora was also raised enjoying periodic visits from Catlett, who she calls "Grandma," and regularly seeing her art. "My whole family is artists or musicians. So I was like, 'This is normal. Isn't everyone like this?' But when I was 20, I started going to [Catlett's New York] art openings," she recalls. "As an adult is when I realized the significance she has as an artist, political figure, a woman and a woman of color."
Mora Catlett explains that Detroit native saxophonist Salim Washington once said, "You're Elizabeth Catlett's son. You really don't know who your mother is." Washington remembers the conversation, too.
"She's someone I admire greatly. In fact, I have a print screen of hers that I bought when I was a freshman in college in 1976," Washington says of his "Sharecropper" piece. "[Mora Catlett] was telling me, 'Wow, this is really valuable because even she doesn't have a copy of it.
"He made it sound like this was just a good artist as opposed to someone who is historically significant," says Washington. "We live in a society in which artists of all stripes, and particularly African-American artists, are undervalued… So it's very easy for us to be walking around giants and not realize that that is what we're doing."
According to Washington, in this case, the same thing can be said about mother and son. "Francisco played with two of the most important musicians of the 20th century, Sun Ra and Max Roach. For him to be a percussionist and to in the M'Boom ensemble led by [Roach,] one of the master percussionists of our tradition, that's a very special thing. It would be easy, with the fame of his daughter, to not realize that Francisco is actually a very accomplished and important artist in his own right."
Mora Catlett is known for having exposed Detroit artists to international musical influences. He founded a cultural exchange program, which took Detroit jazz musicians to Zacatecas, Mexico, and brought Mexican artisans to Detroit. Hayden enjoyed the trip with her ensemble Straight Ahead in 1990. And she credits him with "bringing us into a fuller appreciation of Afro-Cuban music" which has become part of her repertoire.
Having impacted the city beyond the music community, Mora Catlett helped facilitate exhibits of his parents' work in Detroit in the '80s and '90s. "They came to Detroit with several double exhibitions," he says. "The Mexican community and the African-American community had joint interest in both of them."
According to Catlett's self-titled biography by Melanie Anne Herzog, Catlett protested lynchings as a high school student in front of the Supreme Court with a noose around her neck. Despite being warned there were no Black students at the institution now known as Carnegie Mellon University, she applied for and won a full scholarship there. (It was rescinded when her race became known.) After graduating from Howard University, she became the first student to earn a master of fine arts degree from Iowa State University. She was the first woman professor of sculpture at Mexico's largest university-the Universidad Nacional Autónoma De México-and was appointed chair of the sculpture department. She's been winning awards since the 1940s-too numerous to name.
"It's one thing to be good. It's another thing to be excellent. And then it's quite another thing to be important. Ms. Catlett is important," says Washington. "That's a distinction that sometimes we only realize posthumously."
But everyone can be aware of this distinction while Catlett, and her son, still walk this earth.
"I have a debt of gratitude with Detroit because I did so much growing in Detroit-as a human being and as a musician," he says. "Living in Detroit and having the opportunity of sharing stages with Detroit musicians had a tremendous effect on my artistic life."
It's an artistic life that's still evolving. Just last month, Mora Catlett recorded a jazz album with the latest incarnation of his Afro Horn band. It includes musicians from Cuba, Washington and three saxophone players from Detroit: Alex Harding, Vincent Bowens and JD Allen.
When asked how he would like Detroiters to view his family, Mora Catlett responds without hesitation: "As their own."