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Cosbys Start A 'Conversation' With African-American Art


Bill and Camille Cosby have loaned 62 pieces from their extraordinary art collection to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., for a show called "Conversations: African and African-American Artworks In Dialogue." Much of their art has never been shown in public. We spoke with the Cosbys at the museum last week, as Bill Cosby's name was in the news for a different reason - allegations of rape and sexual assault have resurfaced against him. Mr. Cosby settled out of court in a lawsuit for sexual assault back in 2006. Several women supplied affidavits in the suit, which was settled for an undisclosed amount of money. You will hear Mr. Cosby's response to our questions about the allegations during this interview. We sat down to speak with Bill and Camille Cosby at the Smithsonian in the midst of their art.

There's an extraordinary picture that's hanging behind the two of you that I've made a note about. It's from 1894, an oil painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner. It's called "The Thankful Poor" - an older man and a little boy in prayer at the dinner table. It's is a pretty modest meal.


BILL COSBY: Excuse me? Excuse me? But you see more of the plate.

SIMON: But they're giving thanks.

C. COSBY: They're giving thanks.

B. COSBY: Tanner has done what he wants you to feel - grateful, respectful and to, sort of, take in that Christianity sort of look at life, that no matter what it is on that table that you give thanks to the Lord for what you are about to partake.

SIMON: I gather Mr. Tanner wound up moving to France?

C. COSBY: He did.

SIMON: And painted a lot of religious themes.

C. COSBY: Yes, he obviously was very spiritual. I mean, there's another Tanner right there to your left.

SIMON: "The Good Shepherd?"

C. COSBY: Yes, "The Good Shepherd." Exactly, and he lived in France until he died. I mean, he did visit the United States once in a while, but he had had it with the racism - the legal racism - in the United States.

SIMON: What does it mean to the both of you to have this extraordinary collection that's really known around the world and makes a difference in African-American culture?

C. COSBY: Well, I hope that it will make a difference in all cultures. Not just African-American culture, but certainly to show the connection between African-American cultures - in plural, I am saying that plural - and African cultures. Everyone can identify with something that's on these walls, whether it's a spirituality, whether it's family, whether it's looking at a beautiful waterfall. I mean, that is humanity. That's something - a common human experience is what I hope the people will feel. I want them to feel something when they look at every single piece - not just think about it, but feel it.

B. COSBY: And the way things are juxtaposed will certainly give that as opposed to your usual museum set ups.

SIMON: This question gives me no pleasure, Mr. Cosby, but there have been serious allegations raised about you in recent days. You're shaking your head no. I'm in the news business. I have to ask the question - do you have any response to those charges? Shaking your head no - there are people who love you who might like to hear from you about this. I want to give you the chance. All right, Camille and Bill Cosby - they have lent 62 pieces from their collection of African and African-American artists to create an exhibit called "Conversations: African and African-American Artworks In Dialogue." It's now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art through early 2016. Thank you both for joining us.

C. COSBY: Thank you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.