Monday, May 14, 2012

Elizabeth Catlett: Harriet (1975)

Elizabeth Catlett:
Harriet (1975)

Elizabeth Catlett is a female artist who has changed the face of feminist artwork by creating art that empowers women and speaks to critical social and political issues. Her most famous works embody the hardships faced by African American women in the past based on the historical contexts of certain time periods as well as adversities that these women still face today. One of her works titled, “Harriet, 1975,” is no exception, and was created to represent a strong, female leader such as Harriet Tubman. The linoleum cut print is in black and white, and depicts Harriet Tubman in the center of the artwork making her the main focal point. Beside her, there are African American men and women slaves following her to the Underground Railroad for freedom, which is in the direction that her arm is pointing towards. Harriet’s body is much larger than the other men and women’s bodies, while her face looks strong, fierce, and angered. Her arm is large and muscular.  The African American men and women slaves following her look angered, but confident in their leader. Harriet is wearing a dress, holding a gun in one hand, and pointing the escaped slaves to freedom with her other hand. The sky, or the top of the painting is dark, to represent the darkness of night since that is the time that most slaves tried to escape. However, surrounding Harriet and the escaping slaves, there is white, suggesting that Harriet was the light that was capable of moving these people from a dark place and transporting them to freedom.
This piece of art reflects Elizabeth’s passion for creating art depicting the experiences of African American women in history. According to Montgomery and Suzuki, Catlett “uses her art to advance causes of particular interest to her, including the African American experience and the plight of the lower classes” (“Elizabeth Catlett”). Creating artwork regarding a prominent African American female who illegally helped free escaping slaves is certainly using art to express the African American experience of slavery. Yet, in this art piece, Catlett chooses to take a horrendous experience, and draws a strong African American woman leading the escaping slaves to freedom, turning it into a positive, inspirational image, especially for women. Therefore, it is imperative to recognize the historical context of this artwork in order to understand the importance of the images that Catlett drew. Catlett created  “Harriet” in 1975, at a time where most of the Civil Rights protests had ended, and African Americans were finally starting to gain the Civil Rights that they deserved. For example, The Voting Rights Act was extended in July 1975, and between 1970 and 1980, the number of African American elected officials rose greatly (Freed, “Civil Rights”). Affirmative action also allowed African Americans a better chance for economic success under the Equal Opportunity Employment Act (Freed, “Civil Rights”). These strides towards equality were even found in the entertainment industry, when the television show, The Jeffersons, was created with primarily African American main characters and was watched by a large and diverse audience (Freed, “Civil Rights”). These were key events in African American history and the history of our country, but it is important to note that this was still mainly the onset of African Americans being treated more equally. Racism in every industry still occurred on a wide-range basis, as some groups backlashed at the new laws giving African Americans similar Civil Rights as Whites. However, it was still considered a progressive time period where Whites and African Americans worked together to become a more unified group, and on a larger scale, a more unified country.
        As a result of this, it is incredibly interesting and daring that Catlett would create this piece that could potentially stir up controversy, in a time where African Americans and Whites were starting to come together. Some believe that the image was created to remind the African American population that as a community they had faced severe hardships, but had strong leaders and activists, and could gain strength from the image in fighting for equality. Those believers say that this is why Catlett chose a relatively peaceful time to create the image, so that the African American community would be “revitalized” by the image and remember the difficult experiences they went through to get to where they are today. On the other hand, the rise of the African American community also allowed for other minority groups to make a stand, such as women and the feminist movement. So, the image is also meant to represent the empowerment of women to be leaders, fighters, and strong role models, just as Harriet Tubman was. According to, “Tubman worked with the Union Army to defeat the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War, and actually became the first woman in U.S. military history to prepare and help command an armed military assault, the Raid at Combahee Ferry in South Carolina; the military operation freed more than 750 slaves” (Vollen). So, the image of Harriet Tubman, who is not only African American, but also a woman, fighting and leading her people towards social justice is certainly inspiring for women looking to fight and lead the female population towards social justice as well.  
In addition, the artwork “Harriet” portrays clear themes of feminism, race, gender, and gender roles. As I stated previously, Harriet Tubman is portrayed much larger and stronger than the escaping slaves. I believe this is in order to represent her strength as a leader, and the fact that even though there are both men and women slaves escaping, she is the one leading them to freedom and is an African American woman doing so, even though there are men there. This represents the themes of gender and race. She holds the key to their freedom, and they are relying on her strength and intelligence. Furthermore, Catlett also displays the theme of gender roles because it is typically expected that women are weak, emotional, and passive, which is the complete opposite of the look on Harriet Tubman’s face and her body language. Women are usually considered the one’s who cannot protect themselves and need men to save them. “Harriet” defies those gender roles by exemplifying a strong, aggressive woman saving men as well as women slaves, and does not need men to come and save her. She is independent and extremely capable of accomplishing her goals. These themes all display a strong stance of feminism and the strength that each woman can have, just like Harriet Tubman displayed in a time when she was shunned because of not only her gender, but also her race. Therefore, this is certainly feminist art.
“Harriet” is an incredibly inspiring and brilliant piece of artwork, and is similar to other works that Catlett has created, such as “Sharecropper (1986)” and “Malcolm X Speaks For Us (1969).” This is because these works of art all embody the struggles, strength, and perseverance of African American women and are meant to empower and inspire women to fight to accomplish their goals in life and be leaders in the Feminist Movement so that women can one day finally have equal rights. In the words of Adrienne Rich, “Art is our human birthright, our most powerful means of access to our own and another’s experience and imaginative life” (Rich, 103). Catlett’s consistency in creating images that empower women is truly inspiring and being able to access other women’s experiences as Adrienne Rich explained is one reason why I believe “Harriet” is a brilliant work of art. The balance between black and white and the strength embodied in Harriet’s body language is encouraging and brings hope to the female audience. It allows me to realize that I could be a leader just like Harriet, and help women to work towards equal rights in the Feminist Movement. The image makes the impossible seem and feel realistic, and makes me want to fight for the rights that I and every other woman deserves. It is truly a tragedy that Elizabeth Catlett died at the age of 96 on April 2nd, 2012, but her commitment to the Feminist Movement through her artwork was and still is extremely influential in moving towards social justice.
Author: Lauren W.
Work Cited

Freed, Meredith. "Civil Rights." Power to the People: The Institutionalization of Civil Rights. Google. Web. 11 May 2012. <>.

Montgomery, Harper, and Sarah Suzuki. "Elizabeth Catlett." The Collection. The Museum of Modern Art. Web. 13 May 2012. <>.

Rich, Adrienne. “Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts” in Arts of the Possible: Essays in Conversation, p. 98-103.

Vallen, Mark. "Elizabeth Catlett: Dead at 96." Art For A Change. Mark Vallen, 21 Apr. 2012. Web. 12 May 2012. <>.

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