ELIZABETH CATLETT AND THE AFRICAN
Floyd Willis Coleman, Phd.
Carved by Elizabeth Catlett in 1968, Black Unity (1968, mahogany, 20¼ x 22½ x 12½ inches, collection of Alonzo Davis/Brockman Gallery) provides a site for exploring how the concept of diaspora 1 can be used to expand and augment art historical and critical discourse. This work further foregrounds why Catlett's influence on the art of the 1960s was so great, although for much of that period she was considered an undesirable alien by the Department of State and not permitted to enter the United States, even to visit her mother who was quite ill at the time. 2
In this paper I maintain that the life and work of Elizabeth Catlett is exemplary of a quintessential convergence of art, politics, and advocacy for social change that resonated throughout the African Diaspora. Using the concept of diaspora, one has another piece in one's tool kit to explore the extent of an artist's influence on the art of a particular time and place. With Black Unity, Catlett at once visually sums up the aggressive Civil Rights striving of Martin Luther King, Jr., and she embraces the efforts of Malcolm X and those who were tired of the slow pace of change, who wanted Freedom Now, and who advocated Black Power--the ability of Blacks and people of color to unite and determine their own destiny.
This work also foregrounds the liberation struggles taking place in 1968 within the United States and in many parts of the African Diaspora-- within countries such as Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa--and the resistance to authoritarianism and political repression, especially the actions of the Radical Left in the United States and in Paris, France, whose actions reverberated throughout much of Europe and numerous other locations around the world.