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Exhibit Conversations: African Art Outshines African American Art

Philip Kennicott | Washington Post   in  ·
November 14, 2014

Bill Cosby is grumpy, not angry. Grumpy is what happens when you get old and the world changes, and suddenly no one seems to like the music you like, or the clothes you wear, or the rules of etiquette and grammar that you consider fundamental. Angry is different. Anger is passionate and engaged and political, and it can change the world. Grumpy people tend to eat themselves up on the inside, while angry people take to the streets, tear down walls and topple governments.

A new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art draws heavily on art collected by Cosby and his wife, Camille Cosby, since 1967. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of what was once called the Museum of African Art, the NMAA has invited the Cosbys to lend part of their collection to an exhibition, “Conversations,” that juxtaposes African art from the museum with African American art from the Cosbys.

This is the first time that the extensive Cosby collection, which includes more than 300 works, has been on public view. Given Bill Cosby’s epic grumpiness about some aspects of contemporary African American culture, it’s not surprising how tame most of the work in the Cosby collection is and how much of it is bathed in an idealized sense of the past. Race and racism are occasionally present as subjects, but there is a lot of nostalgia, too, and nostalgia is a powerful way that grumpy people sustain their grumpiness.

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