Collection History

World Cultures Collection History

Mende Mask
Click on image to see additional pieces in the collection


In 1971, after returning to Mesa College from five years of teaching humanities, art history, and studio art in Malawi, East Africa, Barbara Blackmun inaugurated Mesa College’s first academic transfer course in African art. Although African crafts and replicas were common, it was difficult for Barbara to find authentic artworks that had traditional, ritualized use within Africa in the San Diego area. To assist her students, Blackmun began accepting a variety of authentic African art objects. In 1984, after she completed her Ph.D in Art History at UCLA, including a year’s fieldwork in Nigeria, Dr. Blackmun returned to Mesa College, and private collectors in the San Diego area began donating museum quality works of African art to the Mesa College Foundation.

From 1984 into the mid-1990s, Mesa College’s collection continued to grow, thanks to generous gifts of Charles Robertson, Lee Bronson, Edgar and Marcellina Gross, Jacques and Brigitte Hautelet, Dr. and Mrs. Arvin J. Klein, Edward and Wilhelmina Smith and the Edward Smith Art Foundation, and Richard and Susan Ulevitch. In 1993 the family of the late Dr. Jack Kimbrough donated his carefully-documented African art collection to the Mesa College Foundation.

As part of the college’s commitment to education generally, Mesa College had an outreach program for elementary schools in the 1990s. Through a grant from the Parker Foundation of San Diego, Mesa Collete African art students created a workbook for 4th graders, and visited area elementary schools each semester. The school children were able to handle headrests, use “talking drums, decipher Adinkra symbols, and create art projects based on the artwork brought to each school. A display of artworks from the Mesa College Collection is still maintained at Kimbrough Elementary School.

Dr. Blackmun also presented an exhibition each year in a Mesa College Art Department classroom used as a temporary art gallery. In addition to pieces from the Mesa College collection, some exhibitions included selected works loaned to the college from the African art collections of others in the community.

In 2001-2002, when the Learning Resource Center (LRC) opened, Dr. Blackmun and Dr. Arvin Klein (donor to the collection), designed and supervised construction of the Glass Gallery, with a very generous donation from the Edward and Wilhelmina Smith family. The LRC Glass Gallery opened in 2003. This enclosed display area is approximately 8 feet tall, 4 feet deep and 30 feet long, with 10 adjustable gallery lights above the exterior of the glass case. The interior is monitored to maintain an even temperature and humidity for the preservation of the artwork contained therein.

From the date of its opening, 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 Power Point introduction, and sometimes a silent and/or live auction.

The exhibitions were entitled:

  • Spirit and Status
  • Values Made Visual
  • From African Wood
  • Blades of Beauty and Death
  • Decoding Design and Disguise
  • Understanding Women in African Art
  • Heads, Hats, and Hands
  • Arts of Cohesion and Disruption
  • Touching the Mystery
  • Reclusive Rebels
  • Puppetry and Performance in Africa
  • Shapes, Colors and Codes of Protection
  • Guardian Spirits (San Diego Central Library)
  • Impressions (Mesa College Art Gallery)

The most celebrated of Mesa College’s African art exhibitions, Blades of Beauty and Death, featured exquisite hand-smelted and hand-forged throwing knives and currency blades from the superb local collection of Jacques and Bridgitte Hautelet. The handsomely illustrated catalogue for the exhibition was written by [Mr./Mrs.] Hautelet and Dr. Blackmun, and designed by Mesa College’s Gallery Director, Kathleen Stoughton. This publication became extremely popular, especially in Europe, where it was mail-ordered from Mesa College’s Art Department at increasing prices for several months before it went out of print.

Exhibitions of the World Cultures Collection artwork within the LRC Glass Gallery are accessible to all of the Mesa College campus community, as well as to the general public. Students taking visual arts, anthropology, history, Black studies, and other humanities courses have used the LRC Glass Gallery to complete assignments concerning the historical periods during which specific artworks on display were made, how these objects were used, and what roles they played in communicating or achieving various cultural goals. Students have analyzed the lines, shapes, textures, colors, and materials used in creating a specific object in relation to the object’s sacred function within a community shrine, for example, or have investigated the possible messages conveyed to viewers during the use of an object in a ritual performance.

Dr. Blackmun served as curator of the collection until her retirement in 2010. Dr. Denise Rogers currently oversees the African Art Collection including the LRC Glass Gallery. Dr. Rogers has continued the work begun by Dr. Blackmun to ensure the preservation of the collection as a research tool for the Mesa College community.

In recent years, the college received several large donations from collectors Dr. Richard and Susan Ulevitch and Dr. John Ross of artwork from Africa, India, Mesoamerica and the Pacific. Due to the expansion of the collection, the Foundation voted to change the name of the collection from African Art to World Cultures, reflecting the diversity of the pieces in the collection. We have have over 1,000 pieces in the collection and will continue to exhibit pieces in the Glass Gallery as well as throughout the San Diego Community.

For more information on the collection or for a private tour, please contact:
Dr. Denise Rogers, Manager, World Cultures Collection / 619-388-2371
If you could like to make a tax deductible donation to preserve the collection and help with exhibitions click on the link below:
Paypal link
Image: Bundu Mask, Mende, Sierra Leone, 20th century. CAT 2003 AK 1