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Elizabeth Catlett at CFAC: An Interview

("Power and Pride," a retrospective of printmaker, sculptor and painter Elizabeth Catlett, is on view at Community Folk Art Center through December 12.)

From the moment I set eyes on it, I thought the large lithograph entitled simply "Celie" was based on Alice Walker's novel, "The Color Purple." Made in 1986, the image depicts in profile silhouette a woman reading a handful of letters, with a halo of light behind her head. Traditionally visual art employs this halo image for sacred figures. Instead, Catlett -- who says she wishes to be remembered most for her work with Black women -- uses it in her depiction of Walker's much-loved character Celie, who keeps unwavering faith with her own sister over years of silence and separation, a choice of image that expands what we hold as sacred and where we find it. In town recently for the opening of "Power and Pride," an extensive retrospective of her work, Elizabeth Catlett said that, yes, she'd been commissioned to make this lithograph, meant for a poster to advertize the novel's screen adaptation.

"They didn't use it," she added. "They used a Gordon Parks photograph instead. But I didn't feel so bad once I saw the movie."

On view since September 12 at the Community Folk Art Center on East Genesee St. in Syracuse, "Power and Pride" brings a treasure trove of Catlett's work to Central New York -- 73 pieces in all, 62 two-dimensional (leaning heavily to lithographs) and 11 sculptures. Printmaker, painter and sculptor, at 94 the still-working Catlett is arguably the foremost living African American visual artist. After a whirlwind of study and teaching and work in the early 1940s, she went to Mexico in 1946, settled there after marrying the artist Francisco Mora and took Mexican citizenship in 1962. But Catlett has also remained a vital part of this country's art community and she achieved a bi-cultural identification with Mexican muralists and printmakers, and that nation's indigenous peoples' struggles, that has sometimes been vastly overlooked, especially here in the States. In acknowledgment of that -- and in hopes of drawing the Central New York Latino community as part of the audience -- CFAC mounted "Power and Pride" as a bilingual exhibition. The title ("El Poder y El Orgullo"), wall texts and catalogue are all printed in both English and Spanish.

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