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THE ART OF ELIZABETH CATLETT from the Collection of Samella Lewis

Brunnier Art Museum
January 17 – May 10, 2024

Elizabeth Catlett (1915 – 2012) was one of the most prominent African American artists of the 20th century. As an artist, she was devoted to creating beautiful and powerful images of the world she knew, with a focus on Black women, motherhood, the Civil Rights movement, and her life in Mexico. Through prints and sculpture, Catlett makes visible with empathy and great skill those that were always overlooked in art because of their race. Her own strength and courage were derived from recognizing the strength of her enslaved grandparents and the importance of education modeled by her own parents, which allowed her access to understand her own voice and creativity.

After being denied a place at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) due to her race, Catlett attended Howard University in her hometown of Washington D.C. A historically Black university, Catlett entered at time where the Art Department was home to significant Black art historians and artists who were teaching the importance of African American art and African art to their students. When she decided to pursue a higher degree, she chose to attend the University of Iowa, first studying painting, but then focusing on sculpture. There she met Grant Wood, one of the professors, who had a great impact on the direction of her work and her process through his belief that an artist should create art of the world they knew and existed within. Catlett graduated in 1940 as one of the first three people to attain a Master’s of Fine Arts degree in the country and the first Black woman to do so. She would spend time teaching herself, including at Dillard University in New Orleans where Samella Lewis was one of her students, and later moving to Harlem in New York City. In 1946 Catlett first went to Mexico City, driven by a great interest in the work of the great revolutionary muralists and funded by a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation. She was there to study painting and to be a guest artist at the printmaking studio the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) and when she returned to Mexico in 1947, she became a permanent resident.

Catlett felt an immediate kinship with the political and revolutionary artists in Mexico, they aligned with her own beliefs of creating art to make society aware of the most important issues of the day. For Catlett, it was imperative that her art shine a light on the continued injustices occurring to people like herself and to highlight the great potential that was often negated through these injustices. Catlett married the Mexican artist Francisco Mora, had three sons, and taught sculpture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In the 1950s, she was investigated along with the TGP for creating art that was seen as possibly communist and their political activities. She became a Mexican citizen in 1962, giving up her U.S. citizenship, and was declared by the U.S. government an “undesirable alien” making travel to the United States difficult. Even though her life was in Mexico she continued to actively create art to support the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the United States. Her artistic voice remained loud and challenging to the wrongs perpetrated on African Americans in the United States. She also continued to create art that challenged stereotypical notions of Black family life, by depicting loving mothers and fathers, and always representing the strength of Black women through tenderly rendered portraits and compelling abstract sculptures.

The U.S. government returned her citizenship in 2002, allowing Catlett to live in both New York City and Mexico until her passing in 2012. Exhibitions throughout her years in Mexico and after her return honor her work and the great importance of her voice, constantly calling for action and representation through her art. Catlett continued to work late into her life and now nearly 12 years after her death large-scale retrospectives are being planned at some of the most prestigious American art museums.

University Museums is honored to host the exhibition The Art of Elizabeth Catlett: from the Collection of Samella Lewis. The exhibition was organized by Landau Traveling Exhibitions, Los Angeles, CA. The exhibition was made possible by the generosity of University Museum donors Amy Namowitz Worthen, Stewart Burger, Renate Dellmann, Janelle and George McClain, and University Museums Membership.


Exhibition Programs

Find full descriptions of programs on the University Museums Calendar. All programs are free and open to the public. Registration is encouraged but not required. Click the event title for more information and/or to register. Events listed below will be at the Brunnier Art Museum (1805 Center Dr., 295 Scheman Building, Ames, Iowa) unless otherwise noted. Programs are subject to change. Check the University Museums Calendar and Facebook page for the latest events information.


Curator’s Tour of The Art of Elizabeth Catlett: From the Collection of Samella Lewis
with Adrienne Gennett

Sunday, January 21, 2:00–3:00 p.m.

Brunnier Art Museum curator Adrienne Gennett will tour the exhibition with a discussion on the history of Catlett, the important themes addressed throughout her artistic career, and how she inspired artist and collector Samella Lewis. 


Screening of Standing Strong: Elizabeth Catlett
plus Q&A with Director Kevin Kelley and Producer Marie Wilkes

Sunday, January 28, 2:00–3:30 p.m.

Enjoy a screening of the Iowa-made film Standing Strong: Elizabeth Catlett followed by a discussion with the director, Kevin Kelley, and producer, Marie Wilkes, of this new film dedicated to the life and incredible art of Elizabeth Catlett. 


Elizabeth Catlett and The Art of the Print
presented by Mary Lee Corlett, former Associate Curator, Modern & Contemporary Prints & Drawings, National Gallery of Art

Thursday, February 29, 5:00–6:00 p.m.

Virtual on Zoom (link)

Elizabeth Catlett is among the most renowned artists of the twentieth century, equally celebrated as a printmaker and a sculptor. This talk will focus on the artistry of her printmaking practice and the multitude of ways in which print processes served her activist vision by facilitating modernist strategies such as repetition and appropriation, engagement with pattern and line, texture, color play, use of positive and negative space, and reversal. The foundational role played by the storied Mexico City print workshop, the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), in Catlett’s printmaking practice will be highlighted.

This program will not be recorded.

Visit the Brunnier Art Museum

Tuesday–Friday, 10:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday, 1:00 p.m.–4:00 p.m.
Closed to the public Mondays. ISU curriculum tours may be scheduled on these days with a 2-week notice.

Closed University Holidays
Click here to see when the museums are closed.

Address: Scheman Building (2nd Floor), 1805 Center Drive, Ames, Iowa
Admission: The cost is free; however, there is a suggested donation of $8.

The exhibition was organized by Landau Traveling Exhibitions, Los Angeles, CA. The exhibition is hosted by University Museums with generous support from Amy Namowitz Worthen, Stewart Burger, Renate and H. Dieter Dellmann, Janelle and George McClain and University Museums membership. Significant support for the exhibition was also awarded by the J.W. Fisher Endowed Arts Outreach Fund.

Images from top:

There is a Woman in Every Color, 1975
Elizabeth Catlett (American and Mexican, 1915 – 2012)
Mixed media
Edition 32/33
From the collection of Samella Lewis

Singing Their Songs, 1992
Elizabeth Catlett (American and Mexican, 1915 – 2012)
Artist’s proof VII
From the collection of Samella Lewis

Maternity, 1971
Elizabeth Catlett (American and Mexican, 1915 – 2012)
From the collection of Samella Lewis

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