Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C., United States
09 Nov 2014 - 24 Jan 2015

Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue

Untitled, 1956–57 By Seydou Keita, Mali. Gelatin silver print, printed 1999 Photograph: National Museum of African Art

One of the world’s preeminent private collections of African American art has its first public viewing currently at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue brings together artworks from two world-class collections: the National Museum of African Art and the Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. Collection. The exhibition remains on view through early 2016, and is a major part of the museum’s 50th anniversary, celebrating its unique history and contributions toward furthering meaningful dialogue between Africa and the African diaspora.

Conversations presents selected pieces from the Cosby collection, including works by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Beauford Delaney, Loïs Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Keith Morrison, Faith Ringgold, Augusta Savage, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Alma Thomas. With the exception of one work of art, the Cosby collection has never been loaned or seen publicly and only rarely and selectively published. These and other works of African American art are placed in thematic dialogue with African traditional works of art, including a Kongo female figure with child from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a lidded bowl from Nigeria by the Yoruba master artist Olowe of Ise, and a Nuna butterfly mask from Burkina Faso, and with modern and contemporary works of art by artists, including Fodé Camara from Senegal, Godfried Donkor from Ghana, and William Kentridge from South Africa. The exhibition and its accompanying publication are organized to explore intersecting ideas about history, creativity, power, identity, and artistry in ways that resonate with people the world over.

Conversations brings together African and African American artworks in a visual and intellectual dialogue about particular crosscutting themes:

Conversations Considered
The artworks on view offer multiple points of entry into the ways that artists explore complex ideas about the social, economic, political, and aesthetic roles of art in African and African American contexts.

In Conversations, selected works of African and African American art provide opportunities to examine the intentions and motivations of artists who creatively explore multiple understandings of the spiritual.

A Human Presence
For millennia the image of the individual has been a vehicle in the visual arts for both reflecting and shaping human identities. African and African American artists employ the human form not to represent reality literally but to explore cultural values surrounding who one is and who one can be.

Power and Politics
The dynamics of power unite artworks in this section. African and African American artists employ a range of visual strategies—upended figures; blood seeping from wounds; poses and gestures denoting individual or collective strength, or its absence—in their explorations of power and its social and political implications.

Memory, Family, and the Domestic Sphere
Artists have long represented domestic interiors, imaging them as spaces for reflection, family celebrations, aesthetic expression, memory, and more. African and African American artists have used domestic objects and environments to define powerful aspects of personal and cultural identity.

Nature as Metaphor
African and African American artistic engagement with the natural world—from naturalism to abstraction to surrealist meditations—reveals how nature serves as a rich source of metaphor in the arts. Artworks on view here examine in distinctive ways the multifaceted, often flawed relationships that human beings have with one another and with the physical and intellectual environments in which we all live.

Music and Urban Culture
Music serves as inspiration in selected African and African American works of art presented in Conversations. Transcending race, nationality, and culturally specific narratives, the artworks embody music as a universal language and consider the human relationships that form around its playing in urban and rural settings.


About the curators
The exhibition was developed and jointly curated by David C. Driskell, artist and noted scholar of the arts of Africa and the African diaspora; Adrienne L. Child, independent scholar; Christine Mullen Kreamer, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator; and Bryna Freyer, curator at the museum. It was designed by MFM Design of Bethesda, Md.

A fully illustrated exhibition catalog, developed by the museum, will be available in the museum store in November. It will include a foreword by Cole, a preface by and interview with Driskell, an interview essay with the Cosbys and a series of thematic essays jointly authored by Childs and Kreamer.

Educational Programs
Public programs will accompany the exhibition to engage the museum’s diverse audiences from K-12 to adult. In addition, the exhibition launches the museum’s pilot “Museum Ambassadors” program, which will train teen docents on the ideas and themes that inform the exhibition.

Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue is a major part of the museum’s 50th anniversary, celebrating its unique history and contributions toward furthering meaningful dialogue between Africa and the African diaspora.




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