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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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” , 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.”)
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.