"The exhibition will encourage all of us 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." - Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director, National Museum of African Art
Years ago, Bill Cosby's career caught fire with a stand-up comedy routine about a conversation between God and Noah. Now, Cosby is inspiration for a variation on that theme: "Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue." The new exhibition, part of the African Art Museum's 50th anniversary celebration, brings together art from the museum and from the Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. Collection to examine the visual and intellectual dialogue shared by African and African American artists through exceptional works of art.
"We started as a private museum collecting and exhibiting both African and African American artworks," says Christine Mullen Kreamer, the African Art Museum's deputy director and chief curator. When the museum became part of the Smithsonian in 1979 its focus turned "exclusively to the arts of Africa," she says. "This exhibition is a chance to look back at our history of fostering cross-cultural dialogue and also to look forward to continuing this tradition and our commitment to the African diaspora." Camille Cosby (a member of the museum's advisory board) had said [she and Bill] were thinking about "something for the museum's anniversary," Kreamer recalls. That "something" caught many by surprise because it was the first time art from the couple's highly regarded collection has ever been loaned or seen publicly.
They shared "62 works of African American art that are joined with 100 traditional, modern, and contemporary objects from the museum" in an exhibition that displays wood and metal sculptures, textiles, and mixed-media works, as well as paintings. The curatorial team of Kreamer, fellow museum curator Bryna Freyer, noted African American artist and scholar David C. Driskell, and art historian Adrienne L. Childs chose the pieces and then, Kreamer says, they "began to see visual and thematic connections" that inform the exhibition: spiritualities, power and politics, the domestic sphere, nature as metaphor, and music and urban culture. Spiritualities, for instance, finds perfect expression in The Thankful Poor (1894) by African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner. It's adjacent to Boy and the Candle (1943) by South African modern artist Gerard Sekoto. They share an "aura of introspection and contemplation and a quality of light. At the same time, they suggest a life that isn't easy for people of color," Kreamer says, and a reliance on a higher power or an inner spirit to get through difficult times.
The section on power and politics includes artworks that address the struggle for freedom and equality through works like Still Life: Souvenir No. IV (1982) by African American artist Eldzier Cortor and the dramatic larger-than-life sculpture Touissant Louverture et la vieille esclave (1989) by Senegalese artist Ousmane Sow. Kreamer believes that visitors will understand that the connections the exhibition makes "are not facile, not just visual connections. We are talking about ways that African and African American artists have grappled with issues, explored them, and resolved them through their work." She hopes visitors will connect their own experiences to the issues and ideas explored by African and African American artists through their work, and then begin their own conversations about what Africa and its diasporas means to them.
At the National Museum of African Art November 9, 2014 through January 24, 2016. Visit africa.si.edu.
Copied from the November 2014 issue of the Smithsonian Associates program guide.