Elizabeth Catlett’s Political Prisoner
Anna Deavere Smith: Take a minute or two to study this sculpture, Political Prisoner. What do you see in this imposing figure? What do you imagine she feels? We asked Tammi Lawson, Curator of Art and Artifacts at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, what she sees.
Tammi Lawson: So, even though her hands are shackled, she's still pressing on, she’s still positive. She's looking upward.
She has pride.
And her torso is painted red, black, and green. And those colors represent the Black liberation movement.
In her stomach, in her soul, is her thought of Black liberation, that’s how I look at it.
Anna Deavere Smith: Lawson could just as easily be describing the artist Elizabeth Catlett. Powerfully motivated by social issues, Catlett’s work came from a place of Black pride, and often sought to lift up the Black community—especially Black women.
Tammi Lawson: She graduated from Howard University in 1935. But her teachers at Howard were great artists that came out of the Harlem Renaissance period.
Anna Deavere Smith: One of the teachers at Howard was the philosopher Alain Locke, a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
Tammi Lawson: And his ethos to Black artists was to look to Africa, and not to Europe—to reclaim your artistic ancestry and heritage.
Anna Deavere Smith: Catlett took that ideal to heart—also incorporating influences from Mexico, where she spent much of her adult life. Her art reflects the oppressions experienced by both Black Americans and indigenous Mexicans, and speaks to universal themes of freedom and justice.
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Tammi Lawson is Curator of the Art and Artifacts Division at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. We gratefully acknowledge the editorial guidance of Dr. Melanie Herzog of Edgewood College.
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