Barbara Winston Blackmun passed away on July 6, 2018, shortly after celebrating her ninetieth birthday. She was an outstanding scholar of Benin art who was known by colleagues and students for her cool head and her kind, open heart. Her many publications on Benin court art demonstrated the potential of the carved ivory altar tusks for understanding the history of Benin art; provided a new methodology with which to study the corpus of Benin art; and established an iconographical “dictionary” that has been a boon to subsequent students of Benin art.
Barbara Winston was born in Merced, CA in 1928 and grew up in national parks where her father managed camps for the Civilian Conservation Corps.1 She graduated from UCLA with a BFA in Fine Arts and a teaching certificate in 1949 and took a job as a public school teacher in Trona, CA, in the Mojave Desert. There she met her future husband, Rupert Blackmun. The newlyweds soon had three children, Monica, William, and Karl. Rupert began his career as a professor of industrial arts, and Barbara continued to teach school. In 1964 Rupert was asked to help establish a polytechnic college in Malawi, and the family spent the next five years there. Barbara taught classes in art and English at Malawi Polytechnic College and the University of Malawi and also helped to set up an arts curriculum for high schools.
Barbara's interest in African art began in Malawi, where she conducted research on the masking traditions of the Maravi people. When the family returned to the States in 1969, they settled in Phoenix, where Arizona State University offered graduate programs of interest to both Rupert and Barbara.2 Barbara earned an MA in art history, studying with Eugene Grigsby, a leading scholar of African American art and a renowned art educator. Her thesis on Nyau masks of the Maravi (1971) was quickly followed by her first published article (Blackmun and Schoffeleers 1972), and she continued to publish on Maravi art throughout her life (Blackmun 2003, 2010). When the Blackmuns moved to San Diego in 1971 Barbara began teaching art history at San Diego Mesa College, but she had further academic goals. In the late 1970s she returned to UCLA to study African art with Arnold Rubin. She received her PhD in 1984, with a dissertation titled The Iconography of Carved Altar Tusks from Benin, Nigeria, thirty-five years after receiving her BFA on the same campus (Blackmun 1984a).
Although it is not known when Barbara decided to focus on Benin ivory tusks for her dissertation, the experience of working with Frank Willett at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow in the summers of 1978 and 1979 surely influenced her methodology. Using quantitative methods, she sorted bronze and terracotta heads from Ife according to eighty-nine stylistic and technical criteria.3 Following her work with Willett, Barbara began to compile the corpus of Benin ivory tusks that she would study and to develop the criteria for analyzing them with quantitative methods.
There are about 130 carved altar tusks from Benin, and each has as many as seventy distinct motifs. No previous scholar had attempted to analyze the entire corpus. At a time when personal computers were still a novelty to most art historians, Barbara ventured into the world of mainframes to crack the code of the tusks. She developed data-gathering forms and motif-placement grids that allowed her to sort the tusks by their physical and stylistic features and to tabulate and compare the choice and placement of motifs on all the tusks. Analyzed in this way the corpus of tusks with its dizzying number of motifs began to coalesce into coherent sets.
Field research in Benin City from 1981 to 1982 deepened Barbara's understanding of the historical and cultural context of the tusks. Guided by members of the Igbesanmwan ivory carvers guild and others, she learned to “read” the tusks and understand the visual language of motifs. Her dissertation included a catalogue of over 400 motifs, comprising a veritable “dictionary” of Benin iconography.4 This enabled Barbara to explore the meanings embodied in the tusk sets, which she proposed corresponded to the groups of tusks that obas commissioned for the ancestral altars of their fathers and queen mothers. According to Barbara's schema, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, ten sets of tusks were created, each with distinctive features that reflected changes in style and iconography, as well as each oba's historical circumstances and political goals.5 Hypotheses about the chronology of Benin art had previously been based on the bronze royal portrait heads and palace plaques. Now the carved ivory tusks could also be used to understand the history of Benin art.
Barbara produced a steady stream of publications on Benin art until 2013, when she was 85 years old. Several articles provided detailed readings of individual tusks or interpretations of tusk sets, allowing readers to experience the magic of seeing layers of interrelated meanings emerge from the dozens of motifs arrayed on each tusk (Blackmun 1983, 1984b, 1994, 1997b, 2001). She tracked the changes in form and meaning that occurred in a single motif through the changing fortunes of the kingdom (Blackmun 1988). She also examined questions of patronage, contrasting tusks commissioned by the obas with those commissioned by the Ezomos or military commanders (Blackmun 1987, 1991, 2001). Barbara's scholarship was thorough, careful, and precise, yet conveyed all of the drama, intrigue, and majesty of Benin court art.
Further research in archives, museums, and Benin City followed from the late 1980s through the 1990s, some of it in collaboration with Dr. Kathy Curnow.6 This new research allowed Barbara to explore broader questions, such as the processes by which new carving styles and motifs were incorporated into the tusks (Blackmun 1994), and how the kings, courtiers, and craftsmen of Benin learned about and utilized the historical events and figures depicted on the tusks (Blackmun 2002). She was particularly intrigued with the relationship between the carved altar tusks and the bronze palace plaques, which the Igbesanmwan ivory carvers used as a visual archive of court personnel, etiquette, ritual, and history (Blackmun 2002, 2007).
Throughout her later work, Barbara considered twentieth and twenty-first century Benin art with the same respect and art historical rigor she used in writing about the art works created before the 1897 Benin Punitive Expedition (Blackmun 1990, 1997a). Barbara championed the innovative techniques and creative subject matter of modern and contemporary Benin bronze casters, hoping to redress the negativity with which these works were often considered (Blackmun 2008, 2013). Although she did not begin to write about Benin art until she was in her mid-fifties, Barbara produced an extraordinary body of work that is her lasting legacy to the field of African art.
Barbara was also a dedicated teacher. She taught full-time at San Diego Mesa College, serving as professor and chair of the Art Department from 1971 until she retired in 2000. Mesa is a community college, with few of the perks associated with research universities. Nevertheless, Barbara maintained a rigorous schedule of research and writing. She is remembered as an inspiring professor. Several of her former students, including Tavy Aherne, Paul Davis, Bess Reed, and Teri Sowell, went on to earn PhDs in art history and rewarding careers in the fields of African and Oceanic art. Davis, now the curator of African art at the Menil Collection in Houston, described how taking her required course in African art influenced him:
I just remember being so utterly impressed and feeling like I knew nothing about Africa or the world. It was a humbling and eye-opening experience. She provided amazing opportunities to experience art. Being from a very blue-collar, not-art museum-going family, these experiences were all very new to me. I never felt out of place, however. She was so caring and always willing to give me some of her time. … I have had a rich life of getting to know the world better because of her!7
Barbara loved teaching and after retirement she continued to teach classes at Mesa College as well as at UCLA and UC San Diego, and an online course for Governors State University in Illinois.
Barbara was also actively involved in the presentation of African art in museums. In the early 1970s, prominent members of San Diego's African American community approached her to join them in encouraging the San Diego Museum of Art to collect and display African art. Their efforts resulted in the 1978 exhibition San Diego Collects: African Art. Barbara continued to serve on the San Diego Museum's African Arts Committee, and she curated two other exhibitions there, Partners of the Soul: African Art of the Baule (2003) and Personal Pathways: Arts of Southeastern Africa from the Sana Collection (2010). In the late 1970s she established the African Art Collection at Mesa College and used it to curate seven exhibitions of African art there from 2003 to 2009.
Barbara served as a valued consultant for numerous exhibitions of Benin art. When I organized the exhibition Royal Art of Benin: The Perls Collection for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1992, I frequently turned to her for advice. She could not have been more generous with her time and knowledge. She advised on exhibitions and collection catalogues at the Houston Museum of Art, the Field Museum in Chicago, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Musée d'Ethnographie de Genève.
This remembrance would not be complete without mentioning Barbara's husband Rupert and their three children. Rupert and Barbara supported each other's professional lives despite the hardships and separations that result from active careers requiring long stays overseas.8 They influenced their children in their choice of fulfilling careers. Monica Blackmun Visonà, their oldest child, became an African art historian, earning her PhD the year before her mother. William followed in his father's path and is a master automobile mechanic. Karl, the youngest, became a pilot for the US Air Force, and has made sure the family stays connected to friends from their days in Malawi.
Barbara was both straightforward and complex. She was a soft-spoken powerhouse, a conventional innovator, a ladylike feminist, and an ambitious scholar who taught for forty years at a community college. In her presence, none of these dichotomies felt contradictory, they were all of a piece with her intellect, determination, kindness, and grit. She led a full and productive life and will long be remembered as a model of scholarship, service, and professionalism.
Monica Blackmun Visonà, personal communications, July–September 2018. I am grateful to Monica for sharing many details about Barbara's life and family.
A pattern of mutual support and encouragement characterized the Blackmuns’ marriage throughout their lives. During this early period, Rupert taught in a Phoenix high school to help make ends meet while he and Barbara were both in graduate school. Rupert eventually dropped his doctoral studies because of the difficulties of supporting a family at the same time. Nevertheless, he championed Barbara's pursuit of an MA and PhD, and she acknowledged his support in every one of her publications.
Although none of Willett's own graduate students had been willing to help him with this project, Barbara was quite eager (Willett 1994). Her results demonstrated that, except for the terracottas from Ita Yemoo and Iwinrin Grove, which were each created by a single artist group, the rest of the corpus was made by “many artists over a period of time, and not an isolated African Donatello with his associates” (Blackmun 2004).
Barbara realized that minute details might hold the key to important nuances in meaning. For example, her catalogue of motifs distinguishes nineteen distinct forms of the heraldic fish-legged figure, some of which can be associated with specific obas (Blackmun 1984a: 242–56).
The most concise expression of Barbara's proposed chronology of the carved altar tusks, in relationship to the reigns of the obas and ezomos who commissioned them, is the one-page chart in Blackmun 2001: 82.
This joint project was intended to culminate in a comprehensive monograph on the art history of the Benin kingdom. Although it was not completed as planned, Blackmun and Curnow published parts of it individually. Curnow has catalogued Blackmun's field slides for the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives at the National Museum of African Art, and organized her files on Benin tusks for the Barbara Winston Blackmun Benin Archive at the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Museum Support Center.
Paul Davis, personal communication, August 28, 2018.
Barbara's research entailed months of travel for research in Europe and Nigeria. Rupert was also frequently overseas, in Iran to train Peace Corps volunteers and later in Saudi Arabia to teach naval cadets how to repair marine engines.