Saturday, September 26, 2009

Betty y Pancho
Director: Juan Mora Catlett
Cast: Elizabeth Catlett, Francisco Mora

In 1998, Mexican filmmaker Juan Mora Catlett unveiled Betty y Pancho, a video portrait of his artistic family that centers on his parents’ half-century marriage and collaboration. His father, who died in 2002 at age 79, was the Mexican painter, print-maker and muralist Francisco Mora. His mother is Elizabeth Catlett, the Washington, DC-born, African American sculptor, print-maker and painter, who went to Mexico City in 1946 to study print-making at the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Popular Graphic Arts Workshop), where she met Mora.

Their son the filmmaker will be in town Saturday afternoon for a single screening of Betty y Pancho at the Community Folk Art Center (CFAC) at 3:00 PM. This rare U.S. screening – though shown widely in Mexico including on television, the film has not been released in this country and is not commercially available on DVD – occurs in conjunction with the opening of Power and Pride: An Elizabeth Catlett Retrospective, which fills both the building’s main galleries and its hallway.

Catlett herself, now 94, travels from her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, for the opening reception Friday night from 6 – 8 PM. Central New Yorkers should take note that landing this show – and the artist with it – falls into the category of Genuine Major Coup for CFAC (though to tell the truth they have been making a habit of that lately). And although there exists fairly extensive other filmed interview material on Catlett, some of it readily available online, in just under an hour’s run-time Mora’s film provides an unusually accessible and close look at how two artists worked, supported one another and managed a bicultural marriage and family.

Betty y Pancho opens with a scene of gracious triumph: the sparkling opening reception in February 1998 at the Neuberger Museum of Art at State University of New York’s campus in Purchase of the fifty-year retrospective of Elizabeth Catlett’s sculpture, which went on to tour the U.S and Mexico. (You may spy, as I did, some work from that show which is now on view at CFAC, although the two shows are not the same group of work.) Soon afterward, we hear Catlett recalling, “My father’s mother was a slave in Virginia and when Emancipation came, her free uncle who lived in Washington, went to bring her back. He had to pay for all the seats on one car in order to bring her on the train.”

After this section recounting Catlett’s family history – both her parents were teachers and her father taught for a time at Tuskegee – and the roots of her art, the film turns to a similar background introduction of Francisco Mora in what will be the film’s pattern of essentially alternating chapters on Catlett and Mora. An exceptionally bright, eager and talented student from a family that was at least comfortable, Mora abruptly found his circumstances sharply reduced by his parents’ divorce. He credits his recollection of hunger so severe that he could no longer think in school with a life-long identification with the poor and the dedication of much of his art to their interests.

Of the indigenous Purepecha people, Mora also found American racism – and its antidote through art and cultural awareness – readily intelligible. (The filmmaker son also made a feature film depicting one of the tribe’s major legends, entirely in the indigenous language, three years ago - Erendira Ikikunari is available at Netflix.) The section of the film devoted, for example, to the early aims and practices of the Taller de Gráfica Popular with its credo of “prints for the people” (it was just a decade old when it brought Catlett and Mora together) are as fascinating at that about Catlett’s engineering a trip to a whites-only exhibit in New Orleans of a Picasso show for her students when she taught at Dillard University; clearly moved, she recounts how her students – not a one had ever entered a museum or gallery to see art “in person” before – ran about excitedly, exclaiming and calling to one another to come and see.

Catlett settled in Mexico and eventually became a Mexican citizen (after Mora’s death she reclaimed dual citizenship in the U.S.) following harassment and arrest due to her political organizing and associations, as government forces sympathetic to the McCarthyism rampant to the north attempted to pressure her into leaving. Although the film does not address that, it does spend time on the three sons Catlett and Mora raised, all artists. Besides Juan the filmmaker, composer and jazz musician Francisco Mora Jr. did the film’s score – a pair of string quartets celebrating Harriet Tubman and indigenous Mexican women – and the youngest, David, is a painter in his own right as well as Catlett’s studio assistant.

Besides making the celebration of African American women and mothers a major theme in her art, Catlett says at one point, “I was always doing things that Mexican women just didn’t do.” While she gives enormous credit to Mora for the union’s success, what’s also obvious as the film progresses is how well matched this pair is as artists – in temperament, sympathies, aims and capacity to nourish each other’s work. You see the results of that in CFAC’s galleries “in person” – and you might feel like it’s the first time you’ve been in a gallery too.

This review is from the 9/17/09 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Betty y Pancho screened on Saturday, September 19 at 3:00 PM in the PRPAC Black Box Theatre at Community Folk Art Center, 805 E. Genesee St., with Juan Mora Catlett on hand for discussion afterward. Power and Pride: An Elizabeth Catlett Retrospective is on view at CFAC to December 12th; the opening artist’s reception was Friday, September 18, 6:00 – 8:00 PM. CFAC is open Tuesday – Saturday, 10 – 5, and Saturdays, 11 – 5. Also, through October 21st, in CFAC’s video alcove, two films by Carrie Mae Weems, Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment and Afro Chic, in conjunction with Light Work’s city-wide collaboration focusing on photo and video by Barry Anderson.