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 collectors, Bill and Camille Cosby have expressed a commitment to art that celebrates African American experiences by assembling works of art that explore the full breadth and dignity of the individual.
- How African and African American artists draw your eye to significant details—form, size, decoration, material, imagery—that communicate ideas and values related to the human experience
- How images of the human form embody myths and traditions, emphasize the importance of family and cultural transmission, celebrate self-defined beauty, and assert power through the creation of personal narratives
Large-size Senufo figures are relatively rare. Paired images visually reinforce notions of cooperation and collaboration. Male-and-female pairs are often described in the literature as rhythm pounders (objects held by the arms and pounded rhythmically on the ground), though some stood in shrines and others were used as display pieces by the male Poro society and by the female Tyekpa society.
This pair’s association with Poro is clear, since the male figure is carved wearing a Poro-society ceremonial headdress and carrying a flywhisk. The headdress is worn to mark the end of the intermediate level of initiation training. The female figure emphasizes fertility, most obviously in her rounded stomach. Her hairstyle, too, is symbolic, taking the form of a hornbill bird’s beak. Hornbills are favored imagery among the Senufo because of the birds’ natural habit of forming pairs and showing devotion while hatching eggs and raising young birds.
The human figure as a powerful physical presence is embodied in the many sculptures by Elizabeth Catlett in the Cosby collection. The Cosbys commissioned The Family in a tribute to their own family. It features a mother and a father figure in an embrace, with profiles of children incised on the side of the work. The personal importance of family to the collectors cannot be overstated, but the critical mass of images of family and maternity in the Cosby collection speaks to the larger importance of family in the maintenance and transmission of African American culture.
The Cosbys shared a close relationship with Catlett, an expatriate African American artist who spent much of her career living in Mexico. Her art is socially conscious and dedicated to depicting the struggles and triumphs of African Americans in their quest for equality. Her visual language is infused with traditional African and pre-Columbian forms.
In this masterfully realized female figure, Baule ideas about adherence to traditional norms of beauty and decorum are encoded in the figure’s elaborate coiffure, scarification patterns, and refined facial features. The elongated torso provides a prominent “canvas” for the display of markers relating to gender, status, and potential. Her protruding breasts and abdomen may suggest notions of fertility and the nurturing role of women in society, whereas her rounded calves reflect Baule concepts about the social and cultural value of work and its positive contributions to family and community well-being.
This figure, which depicts a spirit spouse from the other world, conceptualizes the inner beauty of a well-socialized woman through the representation of ideal physical attributes. The entire composition is beautifully balanced and reveals the hand and eye of an assured and talented artist.
The oldest works in the Cosby collection are late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century paintings by Joshua Johnston, a freed slave who may have apprenticed with a blacksmith but who gained notoriety as a self-taught artist and portrait painter in Baltimore. As the world of fine-art portraiture during that era was the domain of the well-to-do, Johnston’s patrons were largely white and of a high social rank.
Lady on a Red Sofa is an elegant portrait featuring a woman of style—her dress, fashionable jewels, and fine furnishings are all markers of status. Johnston’s painterly technique is simple and flat. The background is empty and lacks depth; it is devoid of the kind of decorative embellishments that were typical of European portraits of the same period and reflects, instead, conventions in American Federalist-era painting.
The abundance of traditional African sculptures portraying a female figure with child reinforces the fundamental importance the world over of having children and raising them to be positive members of society. Carved female figures are shown nursing their children, supporting them on their lap, or carrying them on their back—gestures that indicate the nurturing role of women and the responsibilities of motherhood. However, the conventional interpretation of such sculptures as maternity figures may be secondary to deeper levels of meanings when the works are considered within their broader ritual or other contexts.
In Charles White’s portraits, whether you were a man or a woman, he would give you a pair of arms and hands that looked like they could lift a wagon. And, to me, that symbolically stands for our people in the South moving to the North to work, and working, lifting, pulling, washing, cleaning.—William H. Cosby Jr.
The Senegalese artist M’Bor Faye draws upon details of attire, ornamentation, and furnishings in this distinctive representation of a seated female figure. Faye’s composition is spare and charmingly naive.
In Untitled (Seated Woman), the African American artist William Henry Johnson depicts the sitter as smartly dressed and self-composed. Although she gazes disinterestedly back at the viewer, her red nail polish, stylish shoes, and skirt hiked above the knee reveal a subtle sass and playful sensuality. This emphasis on the urbane woman reflects the spirit of the New Negro movement and the Harlem Renaissance in which black artists exercised their own agency as creative actors to define modern African American identities.
These two sculptures are not portraits of individuals but idealized representations of male figures, with a focus on the head. In certain African societies, the head symbolizes ideas about self-determination, individual destiny, and intellectual and spiritual power. The Fang head, which was frequently rubbed with tree oil, was attached to a barkwood box to guard the physical relics of a family ancestor. African Youth by William Ellisworth Artis, a potter and sculptor who depicted many young subjects, incorporates elements of traditional African portrait busts, such as the stoic gaze and the elongated neck, to evoke ancestries shared by Africans and African Americans.
The South African photographer Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko documents innovative street fashion among South Africa’s young city dwellers. This image is part of the artist’s series Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder, which serves to counter negative perceptions about South African urban life by portraying confident, positive, and stylish young people whose dress is distinctly personal and creative.
In Paris in 1929, Archibald J. Motley Jr. painted Senegalese Boy. Motley was a Chicago painter who, like many American artists in the 1920s, went to Paris to study. At the time of Motley’s sojourn, Senegal was a French colony and Paris was home to a large community of people from the African continent. His depiction of the Senegalese youth—his rich skin tone, striking features, fashionable attire, and quiet reserve—is one of his many works that bear witness to the interconnected experiences of African diasporic peoples.