The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art will be exhibiting pieces from the expansive William H. and Camille O. Cosby collection beginning Nov. 9. The collaboration, “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue,” which runs through 2016, will include pieces by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Keith Morrison, Augusta Savage and Faith Ringgold. It is a first for the collection, which has never been loaned or publicly seen and is only selectively published, and it comes as part of the museum’s 50th anniversary celebration.
The exhibition encourages people to draw “from the creativity that is Africa, to recognize the shared history that inextricably links Africa and the African diaspora, and to seek the common threads that weave our stories together and over time as part of the human family,” said Johnnetta Betsch Cole, museum director, in a statement.
The Cosbys began what has become arguably the most renowned private collection of African American art in the world more than four decades ago as an imperative to preserve cultural history. They talk about its significance, and the artists’ contributions, in a video about the exhibition. “There’s a gender balance, and I’m also aware of the fact that most of our collection is before 1980,” says Camille Cosby. “It’s important to show people that African American artists have been working for a long time.” Bill Cosby talks about how his wife befriended a group of Mississippi quilters and how “the quilts tell a story of life,” he says. “To me, it’s a way to say to people this is what exists, and many of these artists will speak no more.”
Collection highlights include late 18th- and early 19th-century portraits by Baltimore artist Joshua Johnson; “The Thankful Poor” by Henry Ossawa Tanner, part of an exploration of black spirituality; and “Boy and the Candle” by South African artist Gerard Sekoto. Other elements include the 1989 sculpture “Toussaint Louverture et la vieille esclave” by Ousmane Sow of Senegal, as well as Cosby family quilts, African textiles and musical instruments. A music component will also explore urban life and will feature African and African American works.
“Fifty years ago when we began, we actually collected African American art as well as African art in order to foster that cross cultural communication and dialogue,” says Christine Mullen Kreamer, deputy director and chief curator. “It was a way for the museum then, and our museum now, to say artists of color are important. They create works that change our lives, or as the artist Elizabeth Catlett says, ‘artworks that wake people up.’ ”
Kreamer emphasizes the singularity of the exhibition as appropriate to the museum’s half-century anniversary celebration and mission. “This is a major watershed moment,” to have African art in dialogue with the Cosby collection, Kreamer says. “It is looking back at our history, but it’s also looking forward to the role that our museum plays.”