SOME artists are satisfied to be close observers of nature. Others see themselves as interpreters of history; they translate literary ideas touching upon events that have occurred in the past. Many modern artists have forsaken figural form and rely on the basic compositional unity, with color as the salient communication factor. Among black American artists, however, there is still a profound interest in the literal interpretation and execution of themes.
These themes reflect upon the social and political history of people of African ancestry. They highlight events and inform the viewer of inequities still existing in American society. Such paintings have been created for more than 50 years by Elizabeth Catlett.
Catlett, a black American graphic artist and sculptor, born in Washington, was educated at Howard University and the University of Iowa at Iowa City. In Grant Wood, then a member of the Iowa art faculty, Catlett found the model teacher, one who was keenly aware of the discrimination black students had to endure in those days. Wood encouraged Catlett to turn from painting to sculpture. She embraced the idea of carving in wood and stone and developed an enduring love for both.
Catlett began her career by teaching at Prairie View College in Texas in 1940, when she was 21. After teaching at other predominantly black institutions, she ended her teaching career as head of the sculpture department at the University of Mexico in Mexico City. During the past 40 years she has lived in Mexico with her husband, Francisco Mora, a distinguished Mexican painter.
Artists whose works tend to enunciate and inform on social issues are generally regarded as producing statements of protest and most often labeled ``commentary artists.'' While all art is a product of man's social history, some - particularly in the post-modernist period - seeks to reject the art of the past as a foundation upon which to build. Instead it promotes the theory that man's psychological reaction to form holds the necessary ingredients to produce the birth of a sound and aesthetically creative movement in the visual arts.
Black American artists, in the main, have refused to separate their art from life, around which, they contend, all other ideas and events evolve. The cultural history of the black race in Africa and the New World remains a lively subject among black American artists.
Among the best known of Catlett's graphic works is a linocut executed in 1975 called ``Harriet.'' The reference here is to Harriet Tubman, a slave who married a free black, was denied the freedom her first master willed to her at his death, and later escaped to the north. During the later years of American slavery, Tubman earned the names ``Moses,'' ``Moses the Deliverer,'' Harriet Garrison, and General Tubman. These names refer to Tubman's deeds as a ``conductor'' on the underground railroad which helped usher hundreds of enslaved blacks to freedom in the northern United States and Canada.
In ``Harriet,'' the principal figure - Tubman herself - appears larger than life, as indeed she was thought to be. Gun in hand, she points the way north to freedom. She is accompanied by a small band of followers who heed her eloquent abolitionist speeches warning that slavery is the scourge of American society. Men, women, and children follow with the same sense of direction one sees in her dynamic personality.
They seem to echo the resounding chorus of the Negro spiritual of the era: ``...bound for Canaan [Canada] land ... and ... won't let nobody turn me around....''
With consummate skill, Catlett's strong composition carries forth the message of human progress and the age-old concern for social justice in the world. Elizabeth Catlett imbues her art with a social consciousness that interprets history. Her art comments upon the human condition in both positive and negative ways and at times informs us on matters of race and social consciousness. But the far-reaching message of her work remains one of love, a theme that is universal and timeless.