Born in Washington D.C. in 1919, Elizabeth Catlett attended Howard University and later earned a Masters degree in Sculpture at the State University of Iowa, making her the first African American to achieve an advanced degree at this school. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago in 1941, where she studied ceramics and the following year she attended the Art Students League in New York where she studied lithography. A few years later she completed studies in wood carving and ceramic sculpture in Mexico under the tutelage of Jose L. Ruiz and Francisco Zuniga, respectively.
While in Mexico, Catlett became active in the Taller de Gráfica Popular (an influential collective printmaking studio in Mexico City) along with fellow artists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Francisco Mora, whom she eventually married. While working with the TGP she produced a series of linoleum cuts of African American heroes. In the 1950s she was banned re-entry into the United States because of her involvement in the Communist Party while in Mexico, and so she produced most of her work from Mexico, often sending it North to American galleries. Though she lived in Mexico her works often addressed themes pertinent to social concerns in the United States, such as racism.
Her work in both sculpture and the graphic arts has always been highly politically charged, focusing on the social climate for the poor, Jim Crow laws and inner city violence, among other themes.