Naima Mora, talks about the stories she can recollect and those that she wish were documented from her grandmother sculptor Elizabeth Catlett (April 15, 1915-April 2, 2012).


Honoring Their Grandparent’s Legacy

Nia and Naima Mora are working on a website about their grandparents, artist Elizabeth Catlett (April 15, 1915- April 2, 2012) and artist Francisco Mora (May 7, 1922-February 22, 2002). The photographer and writer, respectively, are compiling photos of their grandparents’ vast body of work and writing descriptions about their work and their lives.

So, I had to go to all these different books and find pieces here pieces there and just pull together all the information I could of his story and his life and ultimately the life that he shared with Elizabeth. It just put such a wonderful perspective in my mind recently of being able to understand the compassion that they had and the strength they had as two artists and the depth that they sought to portray in their art based on that compassion for the dignity of human people, of human beings you know?  I mean it’s just mind-blowing!

Nothing Important Comes Easy

Naima has been spending time in her grandparent’s studio and in the process has been in awe of the incredible amount of art they produced over their lifetime. These are big shoes to fill, but Naima and the Mora grandchildren are putting in work to leave a legacy that builds on what their grandparents and parents have achieved.

Being here I recognize the massive amount of work they created over a lifetime. It had to entail such a dedicated discipline just really working and mastering your technique in your craft every day for hours and hours and hours a day. And not only that …being out there and going to meetings with the community and listening to what people have to say around them and teaching the community at like community centers where they could actually connect with the people that they were choosing to represent. So, it was like a lifetime of work. And I’m just sitting here like there is a lot to live up to. You know? I’m going to try my best.

The amount of work and dedication you have to put into accomplishing something so great that’s going to inspire people to shift the world and to shift human concepts of how people should be portrayed and dignity and sanctity of life and such. You know?

The Power of Her Grandparent’s Art

You’re looking at the artist’s message and what they’re saying. But it’s on a level of perception as to what you’re going through in life personally and how you choose to take that. So, it’s the artist’s voice and it’s your voice and how you’re responding to…. Ultimately, it becomes like an exchange between the viewer and the artist the physical tangibility the art itself. And it’s just a complex kind of like idea. And I feel that Elizabeth and Francisco accomplished that very successfully because it was part of their purpose to be able to convey to people that the beauty and the dignity of their lives through just being able to look at a piece of work. And so, there’s that kind of dialogue that’s based on the heart, that’s based on aesthetics, that’s based on physical and mental and emotional interaction that has the possibility to transcend. .. the misconceptions that we develop about ourselves through society, through religious upbringing, sexism, ageism, racism, etc. And then becomes a very humanistic global universal phenomenon that happens you know and it’s incredible. It’s really, really incredible.

Growing Up with Grandmother Elizabeth Catlett

It was always really nice.  It was always really nice. We used to laugh about her being a diva and a prima donna but you know at that point I’m like, “Yes girl or do you a pina colada and be on top of the world. It’s good.” It was lovely.  I think like a lot of grandmothers she’s very gentle and very caring. Oh my God, I’m going to cry. She has all these beautiful what they call the flowers the purple violets…little orchids all around the house and … like I see her work and it’s like very strong and powerful and intense but then there’s little beautiful things like feminine and gentle things like the little flowers around. … as a kid you got like a lot of energy and she was always very patient and extremely contemplative. I can see and understand that she’s really thinking about what it is she wants to say to a person before she says it and including me as her granddaughter.  In a lot of ways a simple woman as well.  You know she ain’t really going to get her nails polished or like go to the beautician like such. She had very simple ways and what else?

I always saw her looking at form and shape and what’s underneath that form and shape. You know like we’d be out having dinner or something together may be out in a restaurant or something…and I could just see her like kind of looking at a waitress or something and she says, “Oh I like the way she does her hair.  Or she does her hair kind of this way, kind of that way, and I like this little thing that she does.”  And she sits and she watches and she studies. And I hope to adopt that some extent. But I don’t think she was that good of a cook.

Elizabeth Catlett’s Grandmother

I would wish that a lot more of what she had to say was documented. There’re a few different books, a couple of different life interviews that were filmed. But you know VHS videotape at the time. I wish so much more was documented. Even though like my interaction with her she didn’t talk a lot about the way she grew up. There were several stories here and there but the stories that she told were like incredible…like she would recount stories to us about her grandmother who was a slave and the impact that it had on her mother and the impact that it had on her.

My great-grandfather was an instructor at Tuskegee Institute. So, education was very important in the household specifically coming from a place where her grandmother was a slave and she sought after education as an artist and she was very, very young. And having prepared very hard to receive higher education as an artist she applied to Carnegie Institute and was rejected. She says she found out that the reason she was rejected was because she was a woman of color. Then realizing that the body of work that she presented was actually much more compelling and proved to have a lot more capacity as an artist than the other several applicants applying for the spot at Carnegie. She was very hurt by that and she was very vocal about it. Carnegie has awarded her an honorary doctorate I mean in her later years.

Elizabeth Catlett’s Resilience

It influenced her and inspired her to just continue. And she went on to Iowa State and she went on to Howard University and got her degrees and got her doctorate and studied with the masters that were there and developed her technique and her craft. You know, maybe that wasn’t the place for her to make her impact. And it’s a show of resilience to be able to just continue with that strength and just having that like, “I’m going to get my education. It doesn’t matter. I’m going make an impact with it.” Several of her pieces of artwork are on the buildings at Howard University and Iowa State just dedicated a whole residency hall. It’s really beautiful. I didn’t get a chance to go to the opening, but my dad went and took a lot of photos and they are going to be on the website soon. They might be on the Iowa State website. It’s such an incredible story.  When she moved to Mexico she was the first African American woman to teach at Universidad del Nuevo Mundo (UNUM) ….she was the first African American woman artist professor there with a doctorate. She held on to that position for a long time, for years. I don’t know. Things like that are just really beautiful to look at and be inspired by like resilience and dedication of I’m going to make this decision. I’m going to do it, you know?

How Her Grandmother Lives Through Her (her sisters and cousins)

I’m still figuring that out I think as I grow into a woman and I study her life and understand her life more…But grace and eloquence, I think patience I learned from her and compassion. I also learned I feel I don’t know if confidence is the word. I don’t know. What’s the word? But just perhaps for lack of a better word confidence despite tribulations. I think her grandchildren all kind of developed into artists because we inherited a desire to have a capacity to be, to physically manifest something that speaks to everything I just told you that I feel I have inherited from her.

My older sister Ifé we are always like, “Ifé you’re giving me a little bit of Elizabeth right now.”  You know like I told you, everyone is like, “Oh my God, Elizabeth is a diva.” … She’s in her wheelchair and I’m pushing her around everywhere. But it was always like, ‘I’m the shit, like I’m it.” So, my sister always comes in with kind of like the same ‘I’m it’ kind of demeanor. She will sit down. She had like a knee surgery or something last year or the year before last we were rolling through the airport coming actually to visit here and I was like, “Ifé you’re giving so much Elizabeth.” She’s in her wheelchair, rolling around, ‘I’m it’ through the airport. That’s like a term we use with my sisters, ‘you’re giving me Elizabeth right now. It’s too much, it’s too much’ (Laughs).

I forgot to mention the way my grandmother lives through me and what I learned and what she taught me was work ethic. Work ethic you know? People are like, “Oh being an artist is easy. You just make stuff.” Seeing the massive amounts of work that she created and my grandfather… I started to understand.

Intergenerational Influence & Respect

Communism was a big threat to the United States which meant it was a threat to artists and progressive speakers and activists and such. Having seen similar things the way people were treated in Mexico and then her maturing as an artist and my grandfather maturing as an artist around the world. I don’t see that now. I didn’t see that growing up.  She went through that. She got through that. Her strength and perseverance those I inherited. But being a young person, I was kind of like, “I’m going to go get tattoos. Who cares?  Life is good, you know?” Because we didn’t see that. We didn’t go through that. The thing that I experienced in my life that was closest to that was like 9/11, you know? Yes there are still the extreme after effects of racism and segregation in the United States that I go through as well, that my friends and family go through as well. But it wasn’t like what she was going through.

With that said, I think though I think she had a great amount of patience and also a want and a willingness to understand a younger generation and how they responded to life. Like she didn’t understand the tattoos that everybody got. We all got tattoos. She didn’t get it you know? But after a while she was a very mutable person. You know? She was so welcoming and so kind-hearted—accepting people and accepting the newer generation and offering what she could in the way that she could not only through her artwork, but also in the perception that she had of people. I think it was really beautiful her willingness to understand and accept. You know the older generation sometimes, “When I was young… when I was a kid we didn’t do all of that. We didn’t do all of that. The younger generation they are crazy because they do all of this.” I didn’t ever hear any of that from her, never, no.  She was always like, “Can you teach me how to use a computer? You know. Things like that, you know. Which was really nice, I really appreciated that about her as a person not feeling judged.

The Politics of Art

But she [grandmother—Elizabeth] told me once she was like, “you know Naima artwork is not real art if it’s not political.” And little by little I’m starting to understand what she meant by that. You know little by little by little. Because you know what is politics? What is it really? You know I hope that you know most of the time I’m a leftist but like I hope that it’s based on the needs of humanity in ours? Essentially that we elect our officials based on an idea that represents our needs as human beings the best. In my latter years, I’m starting to understand a little bit more as to what she meant by that, you know? Part of the archival research I’ve been doing was about when she and Francisco met in the 40s here in Mexico and what an incredible time it was. She moved here in 1946 with her first husband. They got a divorce. … she married my grandfather at that point. When I think about it and speaking with them I can only assume it’s because she felt more aligned with his political aspirations as an artist and the group of people that she was surrounded with here.

This is where she met Diego and Frida when she came to…La Esmeralda. The artists were encouraged to go out into the world and paint and create there. You know go out not the orthodox idea of learning art in a studio but to take your crafts out and learn outside. That changed all the work that they were doing like the muralist movement, the print movement that actually depicted what they were seeing outside of the studio depicted what was going on socially in the world.

And she came in she met my grandfather here. She came to study at La Esmeralda under the foundation grant that she was given…. And that’s where she met Diego because Diego was an instructor at La Esmeralda and … just like political parties all the time.  I can just imagine like in the late 40s early 50s the group of all these artists just hanging around.