Saturday, October 13, 2012

A New Orleans Send-off for Elizabeth Catlett

This past weekend, we celebrated the life of Elizabeth Catlett in grand style! New Orleans laid it out for a woman who deserved every accolade offered. Stella Jones is to be highly commended for making sure Elizabeth's homegoing celebration was beautiful, thoughtful and inspiring. Of course I had to have my fingers in it too and if I do say so myself, the program was beautifully designed! But on a serious note, I have to comment on several aspects of the weekend. First, it was great to see Dillard, Xavier, and Tulane Universities come together to make the three days a success. The Amistad Research Center at Tulane was our first introduction to Elizabeth's life as it created a substantive exhibition of a representative sampling of her papers, articles written about her and a handsome display of her prints. A mini-lecture provided the audience with some background information about her life, especially her connection to Dillard and the city of New Orleans. She was so in love with New Orleans despite the struggles she had there in its segregated days (some would argue those days are still very present, but I digress!) The following day, at Dillard University's Cook Hall, a stirring memorial tribute was emceed by actor Anthony Mackie who it seems started collecting Catlett's work at the urging of his brother, Dr. Calvin Mackie. He bought from the Stella Jones Gallery which provided another solid tie to the event and his personal acknowledgements of the Jones Family and their role in helping him become a thoughtful collector were appreciated. Drs. Melanie Herzog and Alvia Wardlaw provided the scholarly framework for the audience to better understand the magnitude of Catlett's presence in the world of contemporary art. I read Dr. Samella Lewis' statement because unfortunately she is ailing and could not make the trip. But her words of friendship and gratitude for Elizabeth's mentorship were no less important because of her absence because they provided the passageway to the more personal presentations of Sonia Sanchez and Leah Chase. Sonia, in her inimitable style, delivered an homage poem to Catlett that brought the audience to their feet, most with tears in their eyes! She captured Elizabeth's spirit, energy, and lifestyle in her carefully chosen words, while praising her courage and wisdom as a visionary artist. Granted, I am a self-proclaimed Sonia Sanchez groupie but I am not exaggerating when I say she put it down and raised us all up that afternoon! Equally moving was Francisco Mora Catlett's presentation of those family moments no one but a child could relate so poignantly. The humor and fun along with the horror and pain associated with growing up in a politically progressive household where danger was always at the edges of your life during the McCarthy Witchhunt era were so aptly captured in Francisco's reminisces. All told, the presenters gave us a well-rounded profile of the remarkable Elizabeth Catlett, a woman who in my opinion defies categorization. On Sunday, we gathered in Congo Square where Elizabeth has two monumental sculptures, one in homage to Louis Armstrong and the other celebrating Mahalia Jackson, both New Orleanians and both artists of the highest order. The children in attendance released butterflies after a fitting libation was poured. Then the drums commenced and of course Francisco, master drummer that he is, took a seat at the congas and the dancing began! His wife, the beautiful and multi-talented dancer Danys Perez Prades, gave a brief glimpse of her talent as her husband played traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms. This energizing and uplifting experience was followed by a truly spiritual gathering for a communal meal at the famous Dooky Chase Restaurant with the grande dame herself, Ms. Leah Chase, doing the throw down in the kitchen. She promised us Elizabeth's favorite fried oysters and she didn't disappoint! From the boudin to the bread pudding, all was delicious and a fantastic send off for those of us who were leaving Nawlin's that evening. My only disappointment was that there were so few students in attendance at the various presentations. I can't help thinking that so much of the problem with our artistic community is the disconnect between the next generation and mine. I would never have had the blessing of knowing so many great African American artists had I not understood the need to be in their presence every chance I got. I met Elizabeth as a student as I did Romare Bearden and Samella Lewis. I required my students while teaching at Kentucky State to attend all the gallery talks, visiting artists lectures and to take advantage of any other opportunities that occurred for meeting and chatting with elder artists. They didn't have a choice because I knew they needed to have these experiences even if they wouldn't appreciate them until much later in their lives. My life is certainly so much richer for having met and befriended so many of my artistic heroes and sheroes.

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