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  • Barbara Winston Blackmun 1928–2018
  • Kate Ezra (bio)

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 Blackmun's 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 eightynine 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.

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Barbara Winston Blackmun and her daughter Monica in Malawi, 1965.

Photo: Rupert Blackmun

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...


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