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While television networks have nixed planned projects with Bill Cosby and magazines have run cover stories on the lives he’s devastated with his alleged atrocities, the Smithsonian has stood by its man. “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue,” the National Museum of African Art’s exhibition of pieces from its own holdings alongside Bill and Camille Cosby’s collection, remains on view.
The Cosbys have donated more than $700,000 to the museum. Still, the Smithsonian has insisted that its continued support of a man who admitted to giving women drugs in his pursuit of their bodies has more to do with artistic and curatorial integrity than with Cosby’s prominence as a donor or friend of the museum’s director, Johnnetta B. Cole. Last month, the museum posted a sign at the entrance to the gallery, expressing disappointment that the country’s focus on Cosby’s alleged crimes against more than 40 women had “cast a negative light on what should be a joyful exploration of African and African American art.”
“Our current ‘Conversations’ exhibition…is fundamentally about the artworks and the artists who created them, not the owners of the collection,” the museum said in a statement. Here are a few items from the exhibition that demonstrate this show is definitely, DEFINITELY not about the man who has allegedly assaulted dozens of women.
“Camille’s Husband’s Birthday Quilt,” a wall-hung textile work (above) covered in likenesses of Bill Cosby and his family, is only tangentially related to the identity of its owners, Bill and Camille Cosby.
Visible from both the exhibition space and a balcony on the floor above, a subway ad-sized quote from Bill Cosby (right) has everything to do with its substance and nothing to do with who said it.
Placards around the exhibit that applaud two art collectors (“Bill and Camille Cosby have expressed a commitment to art that… shows the full breadth and the dignity of the African American individual”; “The Cosbys’ decision to share African American artworks from their collection with the public… is extraordinarily generous”; “In keeping with the Cosbys’ interest in family…”) in no way boost the nicey-nicey public persona of one of those collectors.
The painting by Bill Cosby’s daughter (above) and quilts by his mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law were included in the exhibit for their art historical merit and not their connection to a man who allegedly drugged and sexually abused at least 46 women.
And just for good measure, though it doesn’t mention him by name: This disturbing detail from a Cosby family quilt may not have been intended to draw on the dozens of appallingly similar testimonies that paint Bill Cosby as a systematic abuser of his fame and social connections, but as with all art, its meaning has been transformed by its context.