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"Conversations: African and African-American Artworks in Dialogue," at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, Nov 9, 2015 - Jan 24, 2016


DonRocks
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I was wandering through the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery for Asian Art a couple days ago, then went through the underground tunnel to the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, where my friend and I stumbled onto this amazing exhibit. She walked in, and I noticed a sign on the outside, then called her back to read it - this exhibit was funded by none other than Bill and Camille Cosby, and we were both surprised to see that. We also didn't think much else about it, because there was a lot of it to see - we strolled inside and began exploring.

And we were rewarded with one of the most satisfying, gratifying exhibits that I've seen in a long, long time. Not only is the art "beautiful," but whoever arranged this exhibit knows what they're doing - the pieces are placed so that the viewer is mesmerized from the moment of entry, and is drawn further-and-further into a world of comparative African / American art. Look at these juxtapositions here, and here, and here.

One thing I realized, the longer I was inside the exhibition, was not only that a great deal of attendees were of color, but their perspectives of artworks were completely different than my own. Click on that third link, for example, and go to the bottom-left of the page - look at the piece called "Cuts." When I saw it, I *immediately* thought of surgical scars; ten minutes later, a docent was leading a tour, and she came up to this work, and told her almost-all-black audience, "Now this one may be difficult for you to see," and I thought to myself, 'Why difficult? OHHHHHHH!!!!!,' and that was my moment of awakening - the unbelievably different perspective that white people and black people have about the very same piece of art. Seriously, I matured in a matter of two seconds when I realized how narrow-mindedly I was looking at that piece.

And now page up on that same webpage, to the second piece down on the right, "From Slavery to Champ I." The docent asked if anyone knew who was pictured, and I immediately volunteered, "Jack Johnson," who was the first black heavyweight champion. I had seen that piece about ten minutes earlier, but what I hadn't seen is that Johnson is standing atop a schematic of a slave ship, and has a halo around his head. As patently obvious as that might be, I simply didn't notice those details until the docent spoke of them, because I had been walking through too quickly.

There are treasures - delightful treasures - to be found throughout this amazing exhibition, which features works of superficial beauty that also contain deep political meaning. You can view them on multiple levels: as decorative art, as narrative, as protest, as symbols - it's wherever your mind takes you, and it wasn't until I got home that I realized how much controversy was surrounding this exhibition. There were (and still are) uproars of various levels, about various things, all of which involve the Cosbys - The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott foolishly stuck his head into the political arena in his commentaries about this exhibition:

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Potential visitors can make up their own minds about whether they detest Cosby so much that they'll boycott this exhibition; I'm just glad I knew nothing about its politics until later in the day - the artists themselves will be the ones who suffer the most if people choose not to go, but I can assure you that this exhibition was packed, and it was packed with about 90% people of color. Really now, how often do you see that at the Smithsonian? Where were the white people? At home hating Cosby? Maybe so, but they were also at home missing out on one of the best exhibitions I've seen in years.

This exhibition closes next Sunday, Jan 24, 2016, and you have six days left to see it. Obviously do as you wish; I am a better person for having gone, for having immersed myself in the lives and minds of these wonderful artists.

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I am so glad I saw this exhibit. I strolled right past the sign about Bill and Camille Cosby's involvement because my eyes were drawn to the gorgeous mother and child sculptures. The collection was beautiful and thought provoking. It was well displayed and thoughtfully arranged.

The pictures linked above don't do the art justice. "Cuts" for example, is much more vibrant in person, and quite large. When I walked into the room, it commanded my attention. I was drawn to this piece and couldn't stop looking at it.

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The pictures linked above don't do the art justice. "Cuts" for example, is much more vibrant in person, and quite large. When I walked into the room, it commanded my attention. I was drawn to this piece and couldn't stop looking at it. 

That's right, they don't - "Cuts," for example, is nearly seven-feet-by-seven-feet - taller *and* wider than a person is tall. Johannes Phokela literally ran a razor across the canvas, then sewed each cut back together, before adding purple and red paint, so there's texture as well as color and symmetry.

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