In 1971, Barbara Blackmun returned from five years of teaching humanities, art history, and studio art in Malawi, East Africa, during which time she visited other colleges and universities on the African continent. After joining the faculty of San Diego Mesa College, she inaugurated Mesa’s first academic transfer course in African art.
Problems of Authenticity in Viewing African Art Available in San Diego
Although African crafts and replicas are common in San Diego, it is difficult to find authentic artworks that have seen traditional, ritualized use within Africa. Because photographs were not enough for Mesa’s students to distinguish a replica of a classic African artwork from a genuine example, each African Art class raised money during the semester for a bus trip to visit the UCLA Fowler Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Bowers Museum, or other authentic collections.
Beginning of the Collection at Mesa: Creation of the Mesa College Foundation
In the late 1970s, former Peace Corps volunteers who had lived in Africa began to donate a variety of authentic art objects, which were accepted informally by Mesa’s art department. From 1980-1984, Blackmun took a leave of absence to complete additional graduate study at UCLA with a year’s fieldwork in Nigeria, and received the Ph.D. in art history.
When she returned, a few private collectors were found in San Diego who were able to donate African works of museum quality that Mesa’s students could study, to supplement their trips to Los Angeles. Between 1976 and 1984, the San Diego Mesa College Foundation was created to receive these valuable donations, by providing a support organization with non-profit 501C-3 status. This allowed southern California collectors of fine African artworks to receive tax deductions for their gifts.
From 1984 into the mid-1990s, Dr. Blackmun and her African Art students offered three small exhibitions in an art department classroom used as a temporary art gallery. Spirit and Status featured a group of masks given to the Mesa College Foundation in 1984 by Charles Robertson, whose family had spent many years among the Pende people in the Congo.
This was followed by Values Made Visual in 1988, displaying selected works borrowed from the local African collection of Robert and Patricia Berg. For this exhibition, the art department produced a catalogue illustrated with photographs by Mesa photography instructor, Marcia Boston. The third exhibition introduced From African Wood, a group of tall, haunting Vigango memorial posts from the Mijikenda population of eastern Kenya.
Mesa’s outreach programs for elementary schools began formally in the 1990s. As we improved the quality of artworks in the collection, a group of sturdy, less valuable African objects was set aside for school children to handle. In 1993 the family of the late Dr. Jack Kimbrough donated his entire carefully-documented African art collection to Mesa College. The Kimbrough family was well known to Blackmun’s students, who had often been guests in their home, enjoying warm hospitality and learning a great deal about African art. Dr. Kimbrough had also shared his collection with San Diego elementary schools, scout troops, and churches, and eventually the Kimbrough Elementary School was named to honor his many services to the San Diego community.
In response to the Kimbrough family’s gift to Mesa, Dr. Blackmun and Education Coordinator Rebecca West initiated an elementary school outreach project, “Creating the Earth,” funded by a grant from San Diego’s Parker Foundation. We created and duplicated a workbook for 4th graders, and volunteers among Mesa’s African Arts students took copies into three elementary schools a semester. The school children tried out headrests and talking drums, deciphered Adinkra symbols, answered questions in their workbooks, weighed brass goldweights, and created art projects. A small display of artworks from the Mesa College Collection of African Art is still maintained in the library of the Kimbrough Elementary School.
During this period, our formal African art exhibitions at Mesa College became more scholarly, when UCLA doctoral student Elisabeth Cameron borrowed fine examples of Sala Mpasu masks from prominent collectors throughout southern California, for display on campus. Her well-researched Mesa catalogue, Reclusive Rebels, is still the authoritative source for detailed information concerning the customs and arts of this isolated population in the central Congo.
The most celebrated of Mesa’s African art exhibitions during this period featured exquisite hand-smelted, hand-forged throwing knives and currency blades from the superb local collection of Jacques Hautelet. The handsome illustrated catalogue, Blades of Beauty and Death, was written by Hautelet and Blackmun, and beautifully designed by Mesa’s new gallery director, Kathleen Stoughton. This publication became extremely popular, especially in Europe, where it was mail-ordered from Mesa’s Art Department at increasingly elevated prices for several months, before it went out of print. After several more exhibitions of African art in the Art Department’s classroom-gallery during the 1990s, it was obvious that Mesa College needed a better gallery space to exhibit African artwork.
History of the LRC Glass Gallery Construction and Yearly Exhibitions
In the late 1980s a campus fundraising campaign to build a better exhibition space for all types of artworks had been initiated by Dr. Blackmun and Dr. Betty Jo Tucker, former Dean of Humanities; but after paying heavily for architectural studies to build an entire art gallery, only $10,000 was left toward improving art exhibition facilities at Mesa.
In 2001-2002, when the new Learning Resource Center (LRC) was built to replace an outdated library building, Blackmun designed and supervised construction of the Glass Gallery, with helpful advice, skilled labor, and a very generous matching donation of $10,000 from the Edward and Mina Smith family. This enclosed glass display area is approximately 8 feet tall, 4 feet deep and 30 feet long, with ten adjustable gallery lights above the exterior of the case. The interior is monitored to maintain an even temperature and humidity.
The first of the yearly LRC Glass Gallery exhibitions, Decoding Design and Disguise, opened in 2003, with mailed announcements sent throughout the U.S. This was followed by a new exhibition every spring: Understanding Women in African Art; Heads, Hats, and Hands; Arts of Cohesion and Disruption; Touching the Mystery; Puppetry and Performance in Africa; and finally, Shapes, Colors and Codes of Protection; which was the last exhibition before funding to support the African Collection’s Curatorial position was eliminated by California’s budget cuts.
During this seven year period, each new LRC Glass Gallery exhibition opened with a catered public reception, an African dance, drum, and/or stilt-walking performance, a short, explanatory video or PowerPoint introduction, and sometimes a silent and/or live auction. All reception and exhibition expenses were enthusiastically funded by public donations, except for $1000 awarded yearly from the Mesa College Humanities Institute, to assist with catering food at the community reception.
Dr. Blackmun served as Curator of the Collection until her retirement from teaching African Art at Mesa, in 2010. Dr. Denise Rogers, the present African Art Specialist on the Mesa College Faculty, is also Curator of the LRC Glass Gallery and the African Collection. Exhibitions of African artworks within the Glass Gallery are accessible to all of the Mesa College campus community, as well as to the general public. Students taking anthropology, history, Black studies, visual arts, African art, and other humanities have used the Gallery to complete assignments concerning the historical periods during which specific artworks were made, how these objects were used, and what roles they played in communicating or achieving various cultural goals.
Students have sometimes analyzed the lines, shapes, textures, colors, and materials used in creating a specific object–in relation to its sacred function within a community shrine, for example, or perhaps investigating the messages conveyed to viewers during its performance. Students and other visitors to the Glass Gallery who take time to read the labels along the front of the display might also notice sharp differences within Africa. These juxtapose modern republics, ancient walled city-states, free-roaming pastoralists who cross all political boundaries, and small-scale independent societies, each with its own language, religion, history, and culture.
For anyone trying to understand the past and present global World, it is helpful to consider the human variety within the land mass of this enormous African continent, and the resulting variety of African Visual Arts.
Barbara Blackmun, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus San Diego Mesa College