Sunday, May 13, 2012

Elizabeth Catlett: Sharecropper (1968)

Elizabeth Catlett:
Sharecropper (1968)


One of Elizabeth Catlett’s most famous pieces is Sharecropper. The piece was created in 1952, but printed in 1968. The print is colorcut linocut on Japanese cream paper that depicts an African American female sharecropper. Catlett is well-known for her politically charged artwork with a focus on social issues and African American women, and Sharecropper is no exception to these themes. In Sharecropper, Catlett captures the strength of African American women who maintained their dignity and strength despite great adversity and is an artistic portrayal of activism on behalf of African American women in the South.
        Catlett created the piece while working at the Taller de Gráfica Popular (People’s Graphic Arts Workshop) in Mexico. Catlett claimed to be influenced by the spirit of activism at the workshop which inspired her to create work that represented the hardships endured by African American women while simultaneously representing the accomplishments of women such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman (“Elizabeth Catlett, Sharecropper”). Sharecropper is a response to the practice of sharecropping that became widespread in the Southern United States after the emancipation of salves.  Sharecropping largely maintained the same relationship between whites and blacks as under slavery because the white landlord would typically exploit the uneducated former slaves by creating contracts that were less than fair.  The former slaves would continue to work hard physical labor in return for a (small) share of the crop produced ("Slave to Sharecropper").  Beyond the history of African Americans, Catlett’s grandmother recounted stories of slavery and abuse of African Americans which instilled in her the desire to give black women a voice. Sharecropper is an intersection of issues of race, class, and gender because of its representation of an African American female sharecropper.
        The image of a strong female African American face dominates Sharecropper’s composition.  The woman is positioned so that the viewer is looking up at her; a point of view which inspires awe. Furthermore, Catlett utilizes a variety of strokes and textures to create a hardness and strength that reflects the toughness necessary for a woman farmer.  The print is a realism print with painstaking detail to capture the features of African American women. Catlett expressed that when “you use your art for the service of the people, struggling people,…only realism is meaningful” and the realistic depiction “reflects us…relates to us…stimulates us…makes us aware of our potential” (“Elizabeth Catlett, Sharecropper”).  The way in which Catlett created this print expresses a powerful and strong representation of the African American women who suffered throughout American history.  Rather than creating an image of a worn out, tired, sad woman, Catlett chose to honor the women by representing their resilience against the unfair circumstances they faced.  Because Catlett chose to depict the strength of the woman, this piece is a feminist work.  Although there is not one single definition of feminist work, I believe the positive portrayal of a woman along with the intersection of race and class makes this piece a feminist work. She depicts the woman so that we honor her strength rather than pity her circumstance.
        In a speech at the 1961 National Conference of Artists, Catlett advocated for all-black collaborations that rejected museum representations as a goal. Catlett warned against black artists trying to copy current art movements, instead, she wanted black artists to create art that represented their experiences and issues that are important to them because, as she stated, “that’s the art that’s going to carry over to other people throughout the world.  It may not win prizes and it might not get into museums, but we ought to stop thinking that way” (“Elizabeth Catlett, Sharecropper”).  Catlett’s remarks on the importance of creating art that reflects one’s own experiences rather than copying an art movement reflects similar ideas in Michele Wallace’s “Why Are There No Great Black Artists”.  Wallace distinguishes greatness from fame in that great “usually refers to everlasting cultural processes as they have been codified in art history and museums for centuries” (Wallace, 187).  Wallace notes that for a black artist fame will almost certainly not lead to greatness because their work is not recognized by art critics or given exposure in museums.  The continued under representation of black artists reflects our many class discussions about the power of who is doing the choosing and who people listen to. Art critics and museums curators have the power to choose who to represent and continually ignore the art of black artists.  Catlett is right not to create art with the goal of museum representation, but art created by black women continues to be systematically underrepresented.  The art that is created by black women is a different view from the view dominated in the art world (the white male). Art such as Catlett’s Sharecropper represents a very real portion of American history, but it is a history that is more comfortable forgotten than showcased in a museum.
        The dismissal of the experiences of black women is a substantial reasoning for Adrienne Rich’s refusal of the National Medal for the Arts.  In “Why I refused the Medal of the Arts”, Rich cites Lorraine Hansberry who during the Cuban missile crisis said “my government is wrong”. Rich comments that “she claimed her government as a citizen, African American, and female, and she challenged it” (Rich, 101). Throughout her response Rich explores the idea that our government does not represent a large portion of its citizens. Rich did not want accept an award form a government that did not represent her similarly how Catlett did not want to strive for acceptance form an art world that did not represent her.
        Sharecropper gives a strong voice to the oppressed African American female workers. I think this piece is important to the art world for the experience it exhibits. The way in which Catlett portrays the woman not only demonstrates her talent as an artist, but creates the feeling that the woman portrayed is someone to be admired.  The piece made me reanalyze how I view the historical and contemporary experiences of African American women.  I had an attitude of pity toward how African American women were and still are treated in American society because of the unfair treatment and restrictions.  Sharecropper forced me to examine my view and allowed to me focus on the strength and resilience of African American women rather than pity them.  Through researching Elizabeth Catlett and rereading Wallce and Rich I realized the importance of noting what art is represented in museums and which artists are allowed to become great.  It is easy in a museum to become captivated with the art and not notice the majority experience represented. I want to make a more conscious effort to note who is getting represented and who is not.
Author: Carly M.

Works Cited

"Elizabeth Catlett, Sharecropper." The Art Institute of Chicago. Web. 12 May 2012.          <>.

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

"Slave to Sharecropper." PBS, 19 Dec. 2003. Web. 12 May 2012.          <>.

Wallace, Michele. “Why Are There No Great Black Artists? The Problem of Visuality in   African- American Culture.” Dark Designs in Visual Culture. Duke University Press.    2004. 184-194.

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