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Bill and Camille Cosby’s Collected Art Featured at National Museum of African Art

In an exhibition featuring outstanding African and African-American artworks titled “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialog,” the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in early November of 2014 launched a 14-month show consisting of 162 paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, drawings, textiles, and mixed-media concoctions — 100 from its own permanent collections and 62 from the private collection of Bill and Camille Cosby.

Charles White, Seed of Heritage (1968). image--courtesy, Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr..

Charles White, Seed of Heritage (1968). image–Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr.

The show’s opening coincided with the museum’s celebration of its own opening on the National Mall 50 years ago. And, interestingly, its “Conversations” exhibition showcases a private collection consisting not of African Art but of African-American art, a category purged from the museum’s own collections when it joined the Smithsonian’s other art museums on the Mall and transferred those works to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The works in the Cosby collection are primarily from the hands of well-known African-American artists, most of whom were not necessarily well-known when the Cosbys collected them beginning in the mid- to late 1960s. As explained in a interview published in the exhibition catalog, the Cosbys first began to collect art in the 1960s to provide “art on the walls,” just as art by non- African-American artists was so often depicted in photographs of the homes of well-to-do white people. Subsequently “our collection began to grow and grow and grow,” recounted Bill Cosby in the catalog, “especially in the late 1960s after the television series I Spy, as we zoomed financially and began to buy houses and needed art to fill them.”

Cosby also reminisced on his using of this art as well as Blue Note album covers — 98 percent of which he said featured African-American men and women jazz musicians — as props on his television programs. All of this, Cosby continued, was to demonstrate to the American public the role being played — and that had already been played — by African-American artists in the visual and performing arts of America.

Malick Sidibé. Nuit de Noel (Happy Club) (1963. image--National Museum of African Art.

Malick Sidibé. Nuit de Noel (Happy Club) (1963. image–National Museum of African Art.

African-American works in the exhibition, all from the Cosbys’ eclectic private collection, date from the end of the 18th century to the 1970s. Many are by artists who have become well-known in the mainstream art world. These include such mid-20th century art stars as Romare Bearden, Loïs Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, and Alma Thomas, to name only a few, and portraits by Baltimore’s Joshua Johnson and the self-taught Hudson River School painter Robert S. Duncanson.

In a video statement by Camille Cosby on the African Art Museum’s website announcing this show, she asserts that the exhibition of works from their collection has an educational purpose and is intended to “eradicate the myths that African-American artists were not skilled, and were not educated” when in fact, she stated, these skilled artists were trained in four-year art institutions and their works hung in wealthy white households. Bill Cosby added, in the same video statement, that “Camille has befriended these women in Mississippi who’ve sent her these quilts [which are in the show]” and that these are being shown as a way of saying “this is what it is — and many of these artists will speak no more.

There are no discoveries of hitherto unknown African-American artists in the Cosby collection nor do recent or protest art works appear — other than a terrific and complex work by Robert Colescott titled Death of a Mulatto Woman, an example of characteristic Colescott art that is replete with crowded and jarring colors, exaggerated figures, and harrowing and poignant picture elements mixed with those of a more humorously satirical nature.

Robert Colescott, Death of a Mulatto Woman (1991).  image-- Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr.

Robert Colescott, Death of a Mulatto Woman (1991). image–Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr.

As Bill Cosby is quoted in the catalog interview, “I only picked artworks that gave me a feeling of calm, because I couldn’t stand to come home to the stereotypical images of mother or child or angry black people after dealing with some of the racist people I encountered during the day.” Colescott is the antithesis of calm, as is the work of the comparable African sculptor Ezrom Legae whose terrifying bronze statue Sacrifice will haunt a viewer’s visual memory.

Ezrom Legae, Sacrifice (1991). image--National Museum of African Art.

Ezrom Legae, Sacrifice (1991). image–National Museum of African Art.

While it appears that the Crosby collection is primarily one of single works by noted artists, exceptions such as Charles White certainly occur. White is an extraordinarily talented African-American artist of whose work the Crosby’s have 20 examples. Bill Crosby states in the catalog interview that he was first introduced to White’s work by its being featured in Ebony magazine. And what especially attracted him to White’s art was his depiction of African-American men and women with strong arms and hands that looked like they could lift a wagon. Camille Crosby added that she “liked the fact that his women did not reflect what has always been propagandized about feminine, female beauty. He went totally against that and just showed the strength and tenacity of black women, and not at the expense of black males, but just through their own strength to get through as black and female.” Two of White’s large portrait-style mural works — Homage to Langston Hughes and Seed of Heritage are among the most powerful paintings in the show.

Charles White, Homage to Langston Hughes (1971). image--courtesy, Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr.

Charles White, Homage to Langston Hughes (1971). image–Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr.

Camille Crosby expressed pride in the gender equality of their collection, one which includes commissioned female and family sculptures by the American expatriate artist Elizabeth Catlett, whose early to mid-century sculptures of portrait heads, a 1939 standing Mother and Child, and astonishingly accomplished protest prints, all of which established her artistic reputation, one that she burnished in a long and successful career in Mexico. Other works from the Cosby collection that serve to astonish include Richmond Barthe’s elegantly sensual male nude sculpture Inner Music, Margo Humphrey’s over the top take on the Last Supper titled The Last Bar-B-Que, the haunting Senegalese Boy by Archibald J. Motley, Jr., and one of the most beautiful paintings in the exhibition, Roots, Southern Landscape, by the expatriate Walter Williams.

Richmond Barthé, Inner Music (1985). image--courtesy, Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr.

Richmond Barthé, Inner Music (1985). image–courtesy, Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr.

To describe how works from the museum’s collection and their visual and emotional impact interact with works from the Crosby collection would require a complex examination and a deep understanding of the context and visual elements in such respective works — to say nothing of an informed, representative viewer’s emotional and cognitive responses to such art. Bill Cosby, for example, asserted at the press briefing that artworks made in Africa were not art. Rather, said Crosby, these were works intended for ceremonial use or for occasions of state.

Alexander ("Skunder") Boghossian, Hallucination (1961). image--National Museum of African Art.

Alexander (“Skunder”) Boghossian, Hallucination (1961). image–National Museum of African Art.

Nonetheless, there are some amazing works of art from the museum’s collection included in “Conversations.” This art ranges from portrait heads, statuettes, and masks to contemporary abstract paintings of brilliant coloration: a Kongo Female Figure with Child from Angola; South African painter Gerard Sekoto’s ethereal portrait Boy and the Candle; Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian’s touchingly eloquent portrait of a woman noted for her spiritual visions, titled Hallucination; and the magnificent work by Wosene Worke Kosrof, a brightly colored and complexly composed abstract painting titled The Preacher III.

Wosene Worke Kosrof, The Preacher III (2000). image--National Museum of African Art.

Wosene Worke Kosrof, The Preacher III (2000). image–National Museum of African Art.

While the African art in the exhibition is consistently of an exceptionally high level, there is a distinct unevenness in that of the Cosby collection. While there is an informative, fully illustrated accompanying catalog, there is an overwhelming feeling, for this viewer at least, of inadequacy in the explanations offered in exhibition wall text and captions. And the scandal of the avalanche of serious allegations against Bill Cosby have served to further overwhelm the scholarship and art involved in the efforts employed in creating this exhibition, and in the plans for its unusually lengthy museum run — one presently scheduled to last through January 24, 2016.