Saturday, August 15, 2015
A Conversation about "Conversations"
When: through January 24, 2016
I'd been debating with myself for a long time over whether to go to the Cosby exhibit at African Art. On the one hand, I love going to exhibits, and I wanted to see the art works. On the other hand, Mr. Cosby is at best, a huge sleazeball and at worst, a rapist. Of course, it's not the art's fault that their owner is such a dreadful person. But, he did use his persona as a "nice guy" to make a fortune, that enabled him to purchase all of this art, and have his collection shown at the Smithsonian.
I went back and forth for (literally) months. I go to see shows based on when they're closing, and every time this show was the "next" one I would go to see, something else would open with an earlier closing date, and I could put off making a final decision. Finally, however, my luck ran out, and I decided to go see the show. I'm not sure if I'm happy I saw it, but I am happy that I can stop thinking about going to see it.
Setting aside the controversy about the show for a moment, I want to focus on the show itself. It's an interesting idea - juxtaposing works by African artists with works by African-American artists. There are similar themes present, and they do seem to "go together" - nothing looks jarring or out of place. Is this because the artists share a common cultural heritage, even if they've been separated from one another for hundreds of years? I was reminded of a show on baskets I saw here several years ago, and how the items made by Africans are very similar to those made by African-Americans. The topic is intriguing, and it's a shame that the scandal hanging over the show overshadows that.
One of the pairings I saw that I liked very much is the one represented here. The painting "Benin Head" is by African-American artist David C. Driskill, and it is displayed alongside an actual Benin head sculpture. I very much like seeing representations of things along with the actual thing itself. It happens rarely, but I'm always delighted when it does. I was also introduced to sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, whose works "Maternity" and "The Family" I impressed me very much. I'll have my eye out for more of her work in future.
But now, back to the controversy. As you walk into the exhibit, there is a notice containing a message to visitors about the exhibit. The Smithsonian is taking the view (which I suppose is the one I ended up taking) that they decry Cosby's behavior, but they think the art is worthy of being shown on its own merits. Just because a bad person likes a piece of art doesn't make the art itself bad. They've also set up a comment book, which I didn't read, so if visitors want to vent their spleen, they may feel free to do so.
What struck me as I went through the show is how much of the Cosby pieces show families and spirituality. In fact, the wall notes for the "Spiritualities" section indicates that these pieces are meant to be a guideline to pursue a moral life. I would say that's the most ironic bit about this show, except that, in the display of quilts (which are lovely), one quilt has a square that reads, "What part of NO Didn't you Understand?" Yes, indeed, that is the question.
Of course, Cosby's behavior is not the only controversy surrounding this exhibit. There's the fact of the Smithsonian putting it on in the first place. Apparently, it's considered bad form to display works from a private collector that have not been given or promised to the museum displaying them. I gather that having your works shown at an institution with the reputation of the Museum of African Art increases the value of the works, so the museum is, in essence, giving the collector a gift. When you add in that the director of the museum is a personal friend of the Cosbys, well, that starts to look bad.
Verdict: The show is very large, and I only had time to skim much of it. You could easily spend two lunch hours looking at everything. I didn't feel great walking around, I must confess. The scandal hangs heavy in the atmosphere. Whether you'd feel the same way is something only you can decide.