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Visual Arts Last Updated: May 31st, 2012 - 08:57:39

Catlett, Peaston, Neruda
By By Esther Iverem— Editor and Film Critic
Apr 16, 2012, 19:04

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Catlett's female torsos are interpreted as a loving tribute to Black women.
As I am writing this, during the celebration of the 114th birthday of artist and activist Paul Robeson, I am very moved to express appreciation for art that inspires and for other artists who have joined the ancestors—Elizabeth Catlett, David Peaston and Pablo Neruda.

The first time that I stopped and admired the sculpture of Elizabeth Catlett, it was a quiet weekday afternoon in Washington, D.C. The museum, down on the National Mall, was not crowded and I just lingered and absorbed the power of one of Catlett’s powerful female nude torsos.

The sculpture, simply titled “Nude Torso,” was Black, polished marble. Though perfectly still, atop a pedestal, it was alive with robust thighs, rounded hips and a proud, generous derriere. The form was rendered with such unflinching love for Black women that it was like a magic amulet for any residual body self consciousness of my Penecostal childhood, for this society’s roiling emotional and physical violence against Black women—and maybe for my own post-slavery traumatic syndrome.

I established my relationship to Catlett and her work—which includes many such loving tributes to Black women. Her work felt like a long letter that I had always needed to receive but had never received—until that moment.

Elizabeth Catlett joined the ancestors on April 2, 2012 at the age of 96. She is survived by three sons, 10 grandchildren and six great grandchildren— and of course by all of us who were born again through her work.

She once said in an interview, “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.” Just like the little girl who wrote the Rev. Martin Luther King and told him that she was SO GLAD that he didn’t sneeze (and die from a woman stabbing him in the chest in New York), I am SO GLAD that Catlett wanted to be of service though her work and knew that service was enough.


Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize for poetry.
For Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet who made his transition in 1973, it was also enough to be of service to people and justice. In honor of National Poetry Month, here is the text from Neruda’s poem, I’m Explaining a Few Things,” about the rise of fascism in Spain.

I'm Explaining a Few Things
You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?
I'll tell you all the news.

I lived in a suburb,
a suburb of Madrid, with bells,
and clocks, and trees.

From there you could look out
over Castille's dry face:
a leather ocean.
My house was called
the house of flowers, because in every cranny
geraniums burst: it was
a good-looking house
with its dogs and children.
Remember, Raul?
Eh, Rafel? Federico, do you remember
from under the ground
my balconies on which
the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?
Brother, my brother!
loud with big voices, the salt of merchandises,
pile-ups of palpitating bread,
the stalls of my suburb of Arguelles with its statue
like a drained inkwell in a swirl of hake:
oil flowed into spoons,
a deep baying
of feet and hands swelled in the streets,
metres, litres, the sharp
measure of life,
stacked-up fish,
the texture of roofs with a cold sun in which
the weather vane falters,
the fine, frenzied ivory of potatoes,
wave on wave of tomatoes rolling down the sea.

And one morning all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings --
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children's blood.

Jackals that the jackals would despise,
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
vipers that the vipers would abominate!

Face to face with you I have seen the blood
of Spain tower like a tide
to drown you in one wave
of pride and knives!

see my dead house,
look at broken Spain :
from every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers,
from every socket of Spain
Spain emerges
and from every dead child a rifle with eyes,
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull's eye of your hearts.

And you'll ask: why doesn't his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
The blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!


Singer David Peaston had a good sense of humor and a great laugh.
Finally, I have been wanting to pay proper respects to David Peaston, the R&B singer who joined the ancestors last month at the age of 54. I was so fortunate to have been in the audience at Harlem’s Apollo theater
in the 1980’s as Peaston worked his way to triumph in the legendary competitions. And when he signed his first
record contract, I interviewed him for the New York newspaper that I wrote for at the time.

In addition to having a great voice, he was a great
spirit—warm, kind and a gracious ambassador for his artistic lineage: his sister was the soul singer
Fontella Bass (“Rescue Me”) and his mother was
Martha Bass, a member of the famed gospel group,
the Clara Ward Singers.

According to news reports, Peaston suffered by acute diabetes and, in his later years, wound up as a double amputee. He is survived by his wife Marilyn and two sons.

Here is Peaston’s rendition of "God Bless the Child," which catapulted him to fame at the Apollo.

Here’s to art and artists that touch our minds and hearts.

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