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.
Conversations brings together African and African American artworks in a visual and intellectual dialogue about particular crosscutting themes:
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.
Since the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art on the National Mall in 1987, the museum has expanded its collection of outstanding works of African art, but it has also continued, through exhibitions and programs, to emphasize connections between Africa and the African diaspora. Thus Conversations looks both to the museum’s past and to its future in demonstrating the relevance of Africa and Africa’s arts to succeeding generations the world over.
—Johnnetta Betsch Cole
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.
Crucifixion by Aaron Douglas makes a powerful statement about black spirituality and changing the dominant Western narrative of Christianity. . . . The Christ figure is one of the smallest figures in the whole composition. Simon of Cyrene, the African who bears the cross, is a much more powerfully rendered figure.
—David C. Driskell
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.
As we were developing the themes for the exhibition, we were aware of the human presence in the artwork. In the months since Conversations opened, I have been struck by the human presence in the gallery—the knowledge, the interest, and the curiosity of our visitors as they engage with the art.
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.
What you have to remember about [Robert] Colescott is that he is seminal in that kind of double consciousness of black imagery. In a way, Colescott was poking fun at the history of black imagery, but he was also telling us to read history, to learn from it.
—David C. Driskell
Memory, Family, and the Domestic Sphere
The domestic sphere comprises spaces where we live and nurture, and where we often become our most authentic selves. It defines a social place that engages the inner world of family and the outer, public world.
Artists have long represented domestic interiors, imagining them as spaces for reflection, family celebrations, aesthetic expression, and much more. African and African American artists and craftspeople have used domestic objects and environments to define powerful aspects of identity formation and to shape cultural practice.
—Christine Mullen Kreamer
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.
Bob Thompson’s compelling Bird with Nudes presents a vision of nature that is both simple and highly complex. I recommend entering into Thompson’s world trusting in what you see and freeing yourself to experience the beautiful and mysterious figures, animal-like forms, and strange landscapes.
—Adrienne L. Childs
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.
I love how Jazz Age Chicago comes to life in Motley’s Stomp. A diverse crowd of fashionable women in flapper styles and elegant men in suits comes together in this decidedly urban and modern milieu. Motley gives us a glimpse into an era when jazz music and dance were taking the urban centers by storm and, through the new and infectious sounds, suspending social barriers.
—Adrienne L. Childs