Bill Cosby’s personal art collection highlighted in Smithsonian exhibition.
By Donna Drejza
When one thinks of the comedian, actor, educator and activist Bill Cosby, renowned collector of African art might not be the first descriptive that comes to mind.
The veteran stand-up performer, known best for “The Cosby Show” and the cartoon comedy series “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” and his wife of 50 years, Camille, have collected precious pieces of African artwork and sculpture — a great deal of it. The couple have lent a few works to Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, just in time for the museum’s 50th anniversary. The world-class collection of 62 works opened to the public Nov. 9, 2014.
Cosby began assembling his collection of sculptures, colorful paintings and textiles in the 1960s with visits to the Brockman Gallery in Los Angeles. As his collection grew, he often arranged for black artists to display their works on the walls of the sets where his shows and movies were filmed, with the goal of giving emerging African artists needed exposure for them and the African art medium. Until this month, the Cosbys’ rare collection had been little seen.
The collection is featured in an exhibition called, “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue” along with 100 other pieces from the museum’s holdings at its home on the National Mall, and from the Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. Collection, based in Los Angeles. The 160 pieces are an eclectic mix of modern and contemporary artwork and reflect a century or more of history in Africa and America.
A serious panel of curators and African and African American Art experts spoke of the origins of African art and of the spiritual message in the works at the unveiling.
Then they let Bill speak.
Cosby, 74, told of resting in his house one day when all these people came in and said, “Camille said we could do this.” Then they took all his paintings and marched out the door. He said he asked his wife if she was filing divorce papers. The angelic-looking Camille Cosby laughed heartily. Then he deadpanned sadly, “They took everything … except for the ones I painted.” The guy just can’t help being funny.
The couple’s good friend, Johnetta Betsch Cole, director for the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, gave a moving talk in her deep orator’s voice. Then Bill mimicked her serious voice. “Dr. Bill” — he had her voice down — “would you like to make a contribution?” He said his wife then wrote a check for $20 million. Dressed in an atypical neutral-toned sweater, Bill Cosby gave that “humble man” look and said he never thought he’d end up with a collection of major art at the Smithsonian. He thought his trademark sweaters would make it to the Smithsonian instead.
I asked if he and his wife agree on the same paintings, or does he have to buy them and sneak them in? He answered in his classic booming voice, “Sneak them in?” After a long answer, his diplomatic wife said they buy art separately, sometimes.
Clearly they care about serious art. After, the Cosbys and a curator led a tour of the exhibit. It was a diverse collection of sculptures, mixed-media and paintings. African sculptures with protruding conical breasts, a gleaming black Leopardine sculpture with a cylindrical opening by Elizabeth Catlett along with soulful portraits such as “The Senegal Boy” by Archibald Motley and “Devils Descending” by Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian. A black outlined painting by Alster Charles of a mother and child caught my eye with its haunting quality.
A standout was a huge, bright impressionistic painting of a baby called “Hanging Out to Dry,” by their daughter, Erika Ranee Cosby, an accomplished artist and art professor at New York University.
The Cosby family clearly has many reasons to be proud and happy. Showcasing their private collection to the masses and celebrating the museum’s 50th anniversary at its glittery gala on Nov. 7, along with their friend the actor Samuel L. Jackson, became one more.
“Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue,” works from the collections of the National Museum of African Art and Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr., is on view through early 2016 at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Avenue SW.