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PHOTO ESSAY

African Descendants in New Orleans: A Visual History

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Louis Armstrong

Elizabeth Catlett, Louis Armstrong, Armstrong Park, Tremé, New Orleans, 1976 Photo: Mora J. Beauchamp-Byrd

In 1976, Modernist artist Elizabeth Catlett was commissioned by the City of New Orleans to produce a large-scale sculpture of musician and New Orleans native Louis Armstrong near Congo Square in the Treme neighborhood (now Armstrong Park). In 2010, Catlett's massive, 10-foot sculpture of Mahalia Jackson, a commission by the City of New Orleans, was also unveiled in New Orleans' Armstrong Park in the Tremé neighborhood. Catlett maintained an enduring relationship with the city of New Orleans, beginning with her tenure as professor of Art and Chair of the Art Department at Dillard University in the early 1040s. Elizabeth Catlett's biographer and former student, Samella Lewis, has written about Catlett's tenure as head of the art department at Dillard University from 1940 to 1942. "For the Dillard students, Elizabeth Catlett was a commanding and fascinating individual… She stood up to everybody…Her immersion into civil rights movements, labor movements, and human rights in general was a threat to the status quo and an embarrassment to the conservative officials of the university, but she persisted until her departure in the spring of 1942…She confronted police on brutality, bus drivers on segregated seating, and college administrators on curriculum." Catlett's experiences with racist and sexist discrimination would result in a recurrence of socially-progressive themes in her work–themes that countered racial and ethnic stereotypes, interrogated singular notions of physical beauty, and celebrated the everyday and heroic role of African American women. Born in Washington, D.C., Catlett was primarily known as a sculptor and printmaker. Refined, sensual sculptures of wood, bronze and marble, as well as a prolific body of expressionistic, often politically-charged prints, have made her one of the most celebrated American artists. Her oeuvre reflects the influence of traditional West African sculpture, German Expressionist prints and sculpture, Pre-Columbian ceramic traditions, Mexican Muralist painting, the Cubist abstractions of Russian-born Modernist Ossip Zadkine, with whom she studied, and her tenure with the Taller de Grafica Popular, a Mexican printmaking collective begun in the 1940's which evolved from the nationalist trend resulting from the Mexican Muralist movement. During a career that spanned more than 70 years, Catlett has been featured in more than 60 solo exhibitions of her work, including retrospectives in 1993 and a 1998, 50-year sculpture retrospective organized by the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, NY in 1999. She resided largely in Mexico from 1946 until her passing at the age of 96 in 2012, and continued to produce art while dividing her time between New York City and Cuernavaca.

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