Elizabeth Catlett, one of the most celebrated African-American artists of the last century, never lived a day in Charlotte. But the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture tapped local collectors for enough Catlett works to fill a gallery. Contributor Greg Lacour has the story.
The lithograph, nearly 50 years old, is titled Head of a Woman. The subject is a black female, perhaps in her 30s, her hair parted in the middle and just beginning to gray. She warily eyes the viewer from an angle, showing impatience, maybe contempt.
“It’s just beautiful, like I’m moved by the beauty of it.”
Shannon Crawford-Walker is a member of the Gantt Center, where the picture hangs. This is the first time she’s seen one of Catlett’s works.
“You can see she’s fretting over something or a little bit stressed,” she says, “but there’s still such great beauty, even in that state, and how she captured it.”
Catlett was a native of Washington, D.C., and spent much of her life in New Orleans and Mexico. Her drawings, paintings, and sculptures chronicle the struggle of African-Americans—especially women—in the 1950s and ’60s. This is the centennial year of her birth; she died three years ago.
About 30 of Catlett’s pieces are on display at the Gantt Center as part of a larger exhibit that reflects a blending of art and activism. That’s the center’s theme this year.
Michael Harris is the exhibit’s curator. He used to work at the Gantt and now teaches at Emory University. He says Catlett’s work is an ideal match for both the center’s mission and the theme.
“She has been an inspiration for many African-American artists as well as many African-American viewers and collectors for such a long time,” Harris says, “that I think on this centennial it would be entirely appropriate to celebrate her.”
Harris knew he could find a few Catletts at the Mint Museum and a couple of others at the gallery at Winston-Salem State University. Those wouldn’t be nearly enough. He suspected that local private collectors might own some Catlett works the Gantt Center could use. Sure enough, they did.
He reached out to people like Thelmetia Bynum and her husband.
The couple contributed two Catlett pieces. One of them is a print of what may be Catlett’s most famous work, a 1970 lithograph titled Sharecropper.
“To me … her art has strength in it,” Bynum says. “Sharecropper, for example, I see a very strong black woman … This is what I really appreciate her for. She herself was a very strong woman.”
It’s a realistic rendering of an older black woman working in the sun, her face lined and her blouse buttoned at the top with a safety pin. She stares with determination, weariness, and possibly some anger into the distance.
Shannon Crawford-Walker says the resolution and dignity she finds in these faces remind her of other faces she’s seen recently in the news. They make her think of the shooting victims in the Charleston church massacre, who forgave the man who had slaughtered their loved ones because they were black.
“It definitely makes you reflect on what happened in Charleston,” she says, “and the fact that it kind of feels like we’re still in the Civil Rights Movement in some ways.”
That kind of insight is one of the goals the Gantt Center had in mind when it organized its Art As Activism exhibits, says Operations Director Bonita Buford.
“It’s beautiful work, but there’s so much more and so many layers of meaning beyond what you see,” Buford says. “It gets people to kind of open their minds and have conversations.”
The Gantt Center hosts the Catlett exhibit through the end of the year.
This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.