Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a member today »

The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

WASHINGTON, DC — Upon entering the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), I made my way through the lobby and down a flight of stairs. At the bottom, I found myself on a kind of mezzanine, a carpeted space with a large window and waist-high glass barrier at the back. I could see a tall wall rising up from the gallery below, and as I approached the barrier, colorful quilts resolved into view. Above their strips of fabric and mostly abstract shapes, at the very top of the wall, was a quote. In large white text shining under a spotlight, it said:

“Quilts tell a story of life, of memory, of family relationships.” —Bill Cosby

This was my — and likely will be many people’s — first encounter with Conversations, the exhibition joining artworks from Bill and Camille Cosby’s personal collection with those from the NMAfA’s holdings. It’s also, notably, the only time the exhibition quotes the comedian by his nickname, rather than the more formal and distinguished-sounding “William H. Cosby Jr.” The importance, it seems, is in that name recognition. How unfortunate that the man attached to the name now stands accused of sexually assaulting more than 50 women, and we’re lauding him for valuing “family relationships.”

In July I wrote an open letter to the National Museum of African Art asking the institution to remove all images of Bill Cosby from this exhibition, in an effort to “[strip] the show of its hagiography and [push] it to a sounder place.” I was thinking particularly of a 1984 portrait of Bill and Camille Cosby by painter Simmie Knox that shows them looking dapper and aglow; the museum had used it extensively as a press image, and so I assumed it was in the show. I was wrong. It’s only included in a small reproduction, on a placard near the beginning.

Installation view of the quilt wall in ‘Conversations,’ with Faith Ringgold’s quilt featuring Bill and Camille Cosby at bottom center, a quilt made in memory of their son, Ennis, to the right, and above that Bill Cosby’s spotlit quote (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

No, as it turns out, Bill Cosby’s presence in the exhibition that bears his name (the full title is Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue from the Collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr.) is far less overt and far more insidious than one might expect. His name does pop up constantly in the wall text, since he and Camille were the source of so many loans, and his face does appear, repeatedly, in a commissioned Faith Ringgold piece that hangs at the center of the quilt wall. But the bigger problem is the way his politics dictate the story the exhibition tries to tell.

In the years between the airing of the TV show that catapulted him to fame and the avalanche of rape allegations that have disgraced him, Bill Cosby became known for a particular brand of respectability politics. In a 2008 profile of the comedian in The Atlantic, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates summed it up like so:

As Cosby sees it, the antidote to racism is not rallies, protests, or pleas, but strong families and communities. Instead of focusing on some abstract notion of equality, he argues, blacks need to cleanse their culture, embrace personal responsibility, and reclaim the traditions that fortified them in the past.

That may not sound especially nefarious, but as Coates goes on to discuss, it’s a worldview that dismisses the real effects of entrenched institutional racism. What’s more, the “traditions” in question are confined to a narrow vision of what black life should be: heteronormative nuclear families (in which women are the caretakers), church, and music like jazz (no rap). These are essentially the same points around which Conversations is structured, and they prove a shaky foundation on which to build an exhibition.

Left: Kongo artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Crucifix (17th century), copper alloy, 8 1/2 x 6 7/8 x 1 3/8 in, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Walt Disney World Co, a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company (photo by Franko Khoury); right: Aaron Douglas, “Crucifixion” (1934), oil on Masonite, 48 x 36 in, Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. (photo by by Frank Stewart, © Heirs of Aaron Douglas / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

For starters, there’s the vagueness of it all: categories such as “Spiritualities,” “Memory, Family, and the Domestic Sphere,” and “Nature as Metaphor,” which are somehow supposed to help shape our understanding of African and African American art. Sometimes the curators do make meaningful associations, as with a 17th-century Kongo Christ on the cross that seems to reappear in a shadowy, angular, distinctly modernist “Crucifixion” painting by Aaron Douglas (1934). Mostly the connections remain at surface level, and the categories feel too broad to be useful.

James Amos Porter, “Washerwoman” (nd), oil on canvas, 18 x 13 in, Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. (photo by Frank Stewart) (click to enlarge)

Lack of nuance is a problem throughout, as the wall text moralizes and lectures at you until you start to wonder if it was written and compiled — or at the very least approved — by Bill Cosby himself. “The colorful palettes and the subject matter” of James Amos Porter’s “Washerwoman” (nd) and James Lesesne Wells’s “Georgetown Garden” (1958), we are told, “reflect the beauty and dignity of work and its contributions to family and society — something that resonates equally in African American and African communities.” Curious, because what I saw in the former was not the “beauty” of work but a romanticized woman whose work has brought her to the edge of exhaustion, and a child who knows she faces the same fate lurking in the background. Meanwhile, the wall text for two “Female figure[s] with child” from 19th-century Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) claims: “The abundance of traditional African sculptures portraying a female figure with child reinforces the fundamental importance the world over of having children and raising them to be positive members of society.” How is this an interpretation fit for an art museum?

The text points to the most dire aspect of Conversations, especially in light of the rape claims against Cosby: its abysmal, offensive representation of women. Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott touched on this in a fantastic piece earlier this year, writing:

In the popular, representational imagery preferred by the Cosbys — to the virtual exclusion of socially, politically or racially provocative art — women are represented as tortilla makers, flower bearers, sexual objects, faithful mothers or fertility figures.

William Henry Johnson, “Untitled (Seated Woman)” (1939), tempera and gouache on paper, 24 x 18 in, Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. (photo by Becket Logan)

The truth of this cannot be understated; the female imagery on display and the interpretations offered of it are so narrow and so unimaginative as to become oppressive. The section where this is most acute is titled “A Human Presence.” The gallery is split roughly in half, with one side devoted to images of women and the other to men; the two meet at the back of the space in a pair of works that present the joining of the sexes as the consummation of family. On the women’s side, a string of artworks — from the aforementioned DRC figures to a painting by Charles Alston (c. 1955) — shows women either pregnant or holding children. Nearby, portraits by William Henry Johnson, M’Bor Faye, and Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian depict three women gorgeously awash in color. Their eyes are piercing, but their body language says something else: all are seated, hands politely in their laps. The subtext suggests that these women are subjects, people to be painted (one of them is positioned like the Virgin Mary, so she’s an allegory anyway).

Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko, “Kepi in Bree Street” (2006), from the ‘Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder’ series, digital print with pigment dyes on cotton paper, 16 9/16 x 11 7/16 in, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, purchased with funds provided by the Annie Laurie Aitken Endowment (photo by Franko Khoury) (click to enlarge)

All the men, meanwhile, are shown child-free. They tend to stand, both literally and on their own authority — the young African men in Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko’s and Malick Sidibé’s photographs are defiantly stylish. They look like they could be descendants of the figure at the center of Charles White’s stunning “Homage to Langston Hughes” (1971); with crossed arms, physical heft, and a hawk rising behind him, he seems primed to singlehandedly stare down the burdens of a racist history. (White’s other work in this gallery, “Seed of Heritage” [1968], features a woman who’s larger than life but also demure, rendered in black and white, cloaked nearly from head to toe, and gazing off into the distance.)

Such subtle (or not-so-subtle, depending on who you are) sexism mounts throughout the show. We move from a painting of a tortilla maker who demonstrates “the strength and imposing beauty of a working woman” to a sculpture of a female figure made from Senegalese kitchen utensils — “a powerful, poetic statement about valuing the significant contributions women make to family and community.” It’s abetted by a glaring absence of actual women artists: of the practitioners included whose genders were identifiable (many pieces were made by unnamed African artists), I counted 20 women out of 82 — not even a full quarter, and one of those women is the Cosbys’ daughter. This presentation of women almost entirely as objects and subjects of study, rather than creators and actors with agency, would be shameful on its own; in the context of an exhibition whose very existence is dependent on a man who appears to have spent decades silencing and abusing women, it’s reprehensible. (It’s dependent not only in concept: Camille Cosby is on the board of NMAfA, and the couple gave $716,000 “to cover the costs of the exhibition.”)

William Pajaud, “Mujer con Maiz, Tortilla Maker 4” (1973), from the ‘Mujeres’ series, oil on canvas, 58 7/8 x 48 in, Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. (photo by Frank Stewart, permission courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

In response to criticism of Conversations, some people have pointed out that countless artists and other prominent figures have done horrible things, and that shouldn’t stop us from showing their art. This is true, to an extent — we shouldn’t ban Roman Polanski’s films because he raped Samantha Gailey. The problem with Conversations, however, is that it’s not about Bill Cosby’s TV show or his artistry as a comedian; it’s about applauding him and Camille as cultivators of a “world-class collection,” and in the process conferring upon them cultural cachet.

That said, it’s equally important to note that NMAfA is neither the first nor most high-profile institution to undertake this kind of exhibition; the New Museum gave over its space to the collection of one of its trustees, Dakis Joannou, in 2010, going so far as to let artist Jeff Koons — whose work “inspired” the collection itself — curate it. Conversations is, sadly, not an aberration. But it is instructive.

When Dr. Johnetta Cole, the director of NMAfA, responded in August to calls to take down the exhibition, she said that Conversations must remain on view because “art speaks for itself, not its owners.” There are some fantastic, thought-provoking pieces in Conversations, but most of them come from the institution’s collection, not the Cosbys’, and they wither within a stultifying framework. The museum, the art, and the public would have been better served by a smarter, more rigorously curated show that, even if it borrowed one or two pieces from the Cosbys, didn’t hitch itself to Bill’s name. Art may speak for itself, but an exhibition is only as good as the context it creates for that art.

Conversations continues at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (950 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC) through January 24, 2016.

Support Hyperallergic

As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever. 

Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.

Become a Member

Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

9 replies on “The Sexist Politics of the Smithsonian’s Cosby Exhibition”

  1. Respecful disagreement, here.

    This article employs Cosby and the museum as vehicles to issue the author’s personal politics undisguised. That’s how political discourse is conducted now, as blunt attacks followed by anticipation of how successfully the other will react. It’s conducted at all levels, from Youtube comments to nationally televised presidential debates.

    Now, some quotes.

    ___ The author’s reaction to museum text: “‘The abundance of traditional African sculptures portraying a female figure with child reinforces the fundamental importance the world over of having children and raising them to be positive members of society.’ How is this an interpretation fit for an art museum?”

    While the statement is ethical in nature, it’s in good keeping with the history of art and how museums preserve it. The earliest known works of figurative art are Venus figurines (seriously preggers) found in several places around the world, dating back 35,000 years. Female fertility was the rubric of ancient cosmology, how the universe was ordered, and as such the basis of human flourishing, success, and security. Would the author issue shame on the Natural History Museum of Vienna for keeping the Venus of Willendorf on display, for its sexism? Just because it is old and belongs to another culture, foreign to us, why still honor sexist art?

    ___ What the author believes is “fantastic” criticism of the DC show: “women are represented as tortilla makers, flower bearers, sexual objects, faithful mothers or fertility figures.”

    This was actually considerd a life of abundance up until about 100 years ago. It’s evident in the history of advertising, images of women like that, because it’s stuff people, including women, wanted and would pay money to think they’d get. Looking at advertising that portrayed women that way, now, as being oppressive, fails to understand those products were marketed to women and bought by women, not brought home by the man and slapped on the counter table before opening a beer.

    ___ And an observation of depictions of men: “All of the men, meanwhile, are shown child-free. They tend to stand, both literally and on their own authority.”

    Before, during, and soon (but not long) after the Industrial Revolution, both of these pictorial narratives were recognized as very positive depictions of women and men. Separating men, as the providers, and women, as one who “works” and one who stay at home with children, was the product of moral reform and improvements in living conditions that fought against a factory system that employed women, children, and of course men. Women would give birth to children on factory floors. Children maimed themselves on machines. All had to work to make a living for themselves, for pennies.

    The “woman at home” life was a result of the success made to increase men’s wages to the point that a family could live on a single provider’s income. This provided a higher quality of life for working class and poorer people. (It is also the basis of what we know as “childhood,” which never existed before.) For “men to stand on their own authority” was not a depiction of men standing on women’s heads; it was an ennobling depiction of people who could take care of others and themselves with dignity, free of oppression from the ruling class. I haven’t seen these portraits but I imagine they are middle and lower class men, not royalty.

    The author’s critique of the show’s paucity of women artists is again a matter of general politics and can be applied, and is, to Lower East Side galleries or any number of places where activists want to count heads and gender and so forth. It’s a worthwhile project, but to suggest Cosby or the Smithsonian should answer to this in particular is a fool’s game with no winners.

    But the bias against positive depictions of the family is a problem. It’s a symptom of “progressive” American myopia that is unquestioning in its belief that the core unit of society is the self-determining individual rather than fidelity to family, what in all other cultures in the history of the world have understood to be the atomic unit of social structure. It’s a gross laps of judgment to issue shame on modern cultures, or your own neighbors, who value family over individual “freedom”. What is seen as oppressive (like the family where the woman cooks and cleans and spends her time with her kids) was once a “liberal” achievement over oppressive capitalist exploitations that were more inhumane than any of us have ever known. It gave dignity to women, children, and men, believe it or not. That should be something learned before going into an art museum.

    Feminism is now different because our economy is different. The author might do well to see the past in a broader scope (or at all) rather than seek out historical paintings of women holding laundry baskets or babies and issuing moral blackmail to institutions. This article is an exercise in misreading.

    [No, I am not a Republican.]

    1. Really nice and insightful. All of this ‘Gotta bash Cosby’ business is just steeping over into other things because they have some ties/connections to him when it should not matter but things should be looked at and based on their own merits

    2. this is all well and good, except the fact that once the breeding and raising is done all resources too often accrue to the male and the woman is left in dire poverty. and. too many times women and children are left alone in dire poverty. these facts are central to the inequality that does not see “taking care of each other” as work worthy of real support and relates strongly to the unequal power relationships that make domination and rape too prevalent.

      1. You cited no “fact” at all. What you wrote is a narrative summary of history free of any examples that could make it remotely believable or obviously ludicrous.

    3. Excellent points, Harper. The Smithsonian should be applauded for not giving in to racist and sexist (misandrist) political pressure and defending great art. That is their job. If journalists and judges did their job instead of giving in to political pressure, this whole insane and vicious witch hunt against Dr. Cosby would never have taken place.

  2. “This presentation of women almost entirely as objects and subjects of study, rather than creators and actors with agency, would be shameful on its own; in the context of an exhibition whose very existence is dependent on a man who appears to have spent decades silencing and abusing women, it’s reprehensible.”

    I was waiting for this key part. You could have skipped the rest. This is your main issue not what the art represents. The key word here is allegedly so before you get your pants in a bunch, you need to keep an open mind and stop listening to a one-sided story. No matter how many women have come forward now and how many they will continue to bring forth, remember that none of them have any proof that it happened. The whole concept is based off one case in 2005 – that’s it. That’s the argument. They always refer back to the Andrea Constand case when asked for proof, that’s because none of the other 50+ has proof of their own. So if they can pull a rabbit out of their sleeve and get Cosby prosecuted, I would be surprised. But really this is what happens to successful black men. It happened to Michael Jackson and it’s happening to Cosby. They will always try to pin sexual crimes against black men without proof if they get successful enough.

    1. Its how blind they are with hatred. I really like what the other poster uptop said. they spoke it in ways of a more ‘artistry’ or ‘artistic’, however you want to call it, so that even art people can understand and notice. Those who are into art no some of the history of other artists and art owner and know if we’re going to judge and remove Cosby’s things then with that same logic they will be removing a whole lot of art out of the exhibits all across the country

Comments are closed.