Curator Heather Nickels discusses Persevere and Resist: The Strong Black Women of Elizabeth Catlett, on view at the Brooks Museum of Art.
Elizabeth Catlett, Sharecropper, 1970. Collection of Joseph Kleineman & Maureen Turci. © 2020 Catlett Mora Family Trust / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY | Right: Micaela Coel in I May Destroy You, 2020
Persevere and Resist: The Strong Black Women of Elizabeth Catlett is a show curated by Heather Nickels, the Joyce Blackmon Curatorial Fellow in African American Art and Art of the African Diaspora at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis, Tennessee. The show explores the work of Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012), the African American and Mexican sculptor and printmaker.
‘Elizabeth Catlett is by no means a household name, but I hope with this exhibition we move closer to a more equitable world which would include having Catlett as familiar a name as Rembrandt or Picasso, or any of the white male artists that we consider icons today,’ Nickels said.
‘When I first arrived at the Memphis Brooks Museum nearly two years ago, I soon realised we had a full set of Catlett’s “The Black Woman Series”, which she created in 1946 and 1947 while she was in Mexico. It is made up of about 15 prints that depict various experiences of African American women,’ Nickels said.
Elizabeth Catlett, Links Together, 1996. Collection of Joseph Kleineman & Maureen Turci © 2020 Catlett Mora Family Trust / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY | Right: KiKi Layne, Teyonah Parris, and Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018
‘I was also doing a lot of research done by Black women psychologists on race-based trauma. It helped me frame this exhibition.’ Through Catlett’s work, the show explores the contemporary concept of the “StrongBlackWoman” (SBW) trope, or stereotype. It shows the ways that Black women, as described in Catlett’s art, have overcome obstacles in both their public and private lives.
‘The majority of the scholarship and literature on Catlett focuses on one of two narratives; either she's the Black feminist or the activist, and sometimes both. But her output is often overshadowed by her ex-husband, which is the fate of many Black women and women artists throughout history,’ Nickels explained
Persevere and Resist: The Strong Black Women of Elizabeth Catlett, 2021. Courtesy of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
‘For this exhibition I took a different approach by applying the discipline of psychology and specifically the strong Black woman trope. This lets us look at her work with a different lens.’ ‘Nickels added that she hopes the show will offer a place where Black women, particularly in Memphis, can feel like they are being seen and heard. Through Catlett’s images, I hope this show helps them feel that they are part of a community.’
Elizabeth Catlett, I Am the Black Woman, 1947. Courtesy of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art © 2020 Catlett Mora Family Trust / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY | Right: Viola Davis in How To Get Away With Murder, 2014-2020
Persevere and Resist: The Strong Black Women of Elizabeth Catlett, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, 2021
A Journey Towards Self-Definition: African American Artists in the Permanent Collection, The Brooks Museum of Art, 2021
New Brooks Fellow Heather Nickels Shares First Project for the Museum, Choose 901, 2020
Why race matters when it comes to mental health, BBC Future, 2020
The ‘strong black woman’ stereotype is harming our mental health, The Guardian, 2018
Niki de Saint Phalle: Nothing More Shocking Than Joy, The New York Times, 2021
Elizabeth Catlett, Sculptor With Eye on Social Issues, Is Dead at 96, The New York Times, 2012
With special thanks to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art