Off the Wall: Sunday Best

A recurring feature, "Off the Wall" spotlights local curators and the works they most want to share with Pelican Bomb readers, drawing special attention to the state's diverse public collections.

Elizabeth Catlett, Two Generations, 1979. Lithograph on paper. Courtesy the artist and Stella Jones Gallery, New Orleans.

Editor's Note

In light of the short film Chasing Dreams: A Leah Chase Story, screening at this weekend’s New Orleans Film Festival on October 16 and 18, Pelican Bomb invited Leah Chase to share a favorite work from her collection. While Chase is not a curator in the traditional sense, her Dooky Chase’s Restaurant brings her impressive collection of contemporary black and Southern art to the public during dining hours. For decades, the restaurant has been one of the most important meeting places for black artists in New Orleans.

Who: Leah Chase, Owner and Cook

Where: Dooky Chase’s Restaurant

What: Elizabeth Catlett, Two Generations

When: Elizabeth made the work in 1979, and I got it that year. This is when my husband Dooky and I were just starting to collect and we didn’t know much about art. At first, Dooky didn’t understand my connection to art. He would say, “Do you want a museum or a restaurant?” I wanted both because art and food go together. They nourish the soul. They uplift!

Why: I truly love this piece! It talks to me. It takes me way back. I’ve never asked Elizabeth what she was thinking, but I made my own story. I’ve always imagined it’s a little boy and his grandmother. She has her hat on like she’s going to church. You have to understand about hats on old black women. In those days, that hat was all that they had for Sunday. It was usually a panama hat. They would go to church with that hat, come home, put it in a box, and put it on top of the armoire until the next Sunday. That was the meaning of “Sunday best.” That hat lasted for years. You didn’t just take the hat for granted. The hat was important. And look at her face! She is proud as can be. She is as sure of herself as you can get. And you see this little boy! He is not going to say a word because he knows he better not say a word in church. Grandma wouldn’t like that. When you have a child, you have to think about how to bring that child up and make a man of that child. No matter how little you have, you have to do your best. You learn to make something out of nothing. That’s what I see in this woman.

Sometimes I just sit in the restaurant and I think about the work and I think about the artists who made it. For me, it has always just been things that I like from people that I like: John Biggers, Jacob Lawrence, Bill Pajaud. These artists came my way and sometimes we swapped paintings for gumbo. They were good and kind to me, and they really taught me how to appreciate art, how to look at it. When I started collecting, I knew I had to promote black artists and I had to educate my own people. To me, the best way to educate them on art was to show art by people like themselves. John Scott always said, “You have to pass it on.” Whatever he knew he was ready to pass it on because he felt there was no point having anything or learning anything if you didn’t share it. It’s a generosity that not everybody can muster, but it’s important to me. My doors are open to everyone.