Oh Freedom! Elizabeth Catlett

Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through American Art
A bust of Phillis Wheatley

Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), Phillis Wheatley, 1973, bronze and wood, 21 1/2 x 12 1/4 x 10 1/2 in., Art © Estate of Elizabeth Catlett/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum purchase, T2008-25

Student Questions

1. What does Phillis Wheatley’s pose tell us about her? 

2. Why do you think the sculptor Elizabeth Catlett might have shown Wheatley in this posture? 

3. Do you think Wheatley modeled for the artist? Why or why not?

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About This Artwork

Phillis Wheatley (about 1753/55–1784), born in West Africa and brought to Massachusetts as a slave, was a gifted writer. She is noted for being the first person of African descent to write and publish a book of poetry in the English language. Elizabeth Catlett sculpted Wheatley to honor both the poet and black women. Catlett based her work on a contemporary portrait of Wheatley but also took some artistic license. Catlett, for example, gave Wheatley perfect features that many women of West African heritage share. Referring to African art, Catlett shaped the figure's eyes to look like those found on many West African figures, and she made this work from bronze, a material often used in West African sculpture. Finally, although Catlett dressed the woman in the kind of bonnet that Wheatley probably wore, she provided no other clues except the work's title to connect this figure with a particular individual, country, or time. All of these details suggest both a portrait of Wheatley and an idealized image of black womanhood.

Wheatley gained her freedom when she was a young woman, and several of her poems called for the abolition of slavery. Catlett showed the young writer's intellect by portraying her with her finger on her cheek, a gesture that indicates she is thoughtful and self-possessed. Wheatley was posed this way in an engraving made by the black artist Scipio Moorhead, which served as the frontispiece for her 1773 book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

Although Wheatley gained wide recognition in the United States and Europe in her day, she was largely forgotten for two hundred years following her death. In the 1970s, when Catlett made this sculpture, two social movements were gaining momentum. One was the Black Power movement, whose members shared the ideas of solidarity and racial pride that had emerged decades earlier with the New Negro movement. However, the Black Power movement was more impatient for changes that would guarantee their rights. Scholars inspired by Black Power actively worked to rediscover forgotten African Americans and to increase awareness of their contributions to American history and culture.

Catlett was also motivated by feminism, especially black feminism. Like advocates for minority rights, feminists joined together to demand changes that would guarantee women equality. Black feminists were particularly anxious to counter a tendency in the male-dominated leadership of the black freedom movements that excluded black women from positions of power and ignored black women's contributions to American society. Because of the increasing influence of Black Power and feminism in the 1970s, the time was ripe for Catlett's rediscovery of Wheatley. As an active crusader for civil rights and an ardent feminist, Catlett purposely created works like Phillis Wheatley that could bring these often distinct movements into harmony.

About This Artist

Elizabeth Catlett (born Washington, DC 1915-died Cuernavaca, Mexico 2012)

Throughout her more than seventy-year career, Elizabeth Catlett has connected her art to politically progressive causes, particularly those she thinks are important to black women. She has explained, "I have always wanted my art to service my people—to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential…. Learning how to do this and passing that learning on to other people have been my goals." Born in Washington, D.C., and educated at Howard University, Catlett taught art in the Jim Crow South before attending the University of Iowa, where she studied under Grant Wood. Living in New York during World War II, Catlett taught at the George Washington Carver School in Harlem, where she met her first husband, Charles White. Catlett then moved to Mexico on a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1946, where she joined the progressive printmakers association Taller de Gráfica Popular and met artist Francisco Mora, whom she married. Summoned to the U.S. Embassy in 1955, she was asked to provide the names of the political progressives she knew in Mexico and was herself identified as an “undesirable alien” by the U.S. State Department, a designation that barred her return to the United States for nearly a decade. Now a dual citizen of Mexico and the United States, Catlett continues to create work that she dedicates to “the liberation of our people.”

An engraving on paper of a woman sitting at a desk writing.

Unidentified artist, Phillis Wheatley (copy after Scipio Moorhead), 1773. Engraving on paper, 6 15/16 x 5 1/16 in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.77.2

Elizabeth Catlett based her sculpture of Phillis Wheatley in part on this engraving originally by Scipio Moorhead (seen here as a copy). Although little is known about Moorhead, Wheatley recognized the enslaved artist’s talents when she wrote a poem about him in her 1773 volume, which describes the reciprocal inspiration of their two art forms. She wrote, "Still may the painter's and the poet's fire/ To aid thy pencil and thy verse conspire!" Moorhead’s portrait of Wheatley bore out this synergy when it was included as the frontispiece to subsequent editions of her poetry books, unifying his imagery and her words.

A photograph of Ntozake Shange.

Anthony Barboza (photographer), Ntozake Shange, 1977. Gelatin silver print, 19 7/8 x 16 in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Danica, Celefio, and Lien Barboza, © Anthony Barboza, S/NPG.2005.128

African American women artists have helped deepen our understanding of the civil rights struggle by detailing their everyday experiences. In the performance piece For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf,playwright Ntozake Shange, pictured here, dramatizes the challenges and strength of a series of female African American characters. When the work was performed on Broadway in 1976, it was hailed for celebrating the diverse experiences of African women.

A mixed media sculpture piece.

Syd Carpenter, Mary Lou Furcron, 2010. Terra cotta with acrylic paint, graphite, and wood, 25 x 23 x 11 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, purchase through the Renwick Acquisitions Fund, © 2010 Syd Carpenter, 2010.51

Ceramicist Syd Carpenter was inspired to create a series of sculptures entitled A Place of Our Own after learning about the history of African American gardening. The series depicts her abstract interpretation of specific gardens, typically created by African American women from Georgia. Her series examines how the gardeners’ histories, identities, and spirituality were reflected in their development of the landscape. This piece is based on Mary Lou Furcron, whose home was built from pine logs and surrounded by crops. Carpenter’s interpretations of the small, modest plots remind viewers of the challenges that confronted African American women in the rural South but also celebrate the ingenious ways these farmers expressed their culture and heritage.