Suzanne Preston Blier ’73 is a world-renowned investigator and interpreter of precolonial African art and material culture, and a pioneer in the digital humanities. The Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, she holds appointments in both the History of Art and Architecture department and the department of African and African American studies.
Since first encountering the early art of West Africa during her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bénin, her life’s passion is looking deeply into both the materials and methods as well as the societies and historical moments that shape African art.
It is a fitting admixture for an art history major with a thirst for anthropology. Suzanne Preston Blier credits an idea that she heard in her very first art history class at UVM for kindling her passion and setting her on the path of her vocation. She recounts that spark, credited to her UVM teachers and the art historian Erwin Panofsky: “In his eyes, everything had a symbol and a meaning, and you could go into a work and decipher it [like]…a detective novel.” Intrigued by the expressive work of some of civilizations oldest ancestors, and with little to no written history predating 19th-century colonial times, Suzanne Preston Blier set out to discover the deep stories in early African art, heretofore unstudied and untold. In the process, she has transformed the field.
Regarded as one of the most honored historians of African art, she is also considered one of the field’s broadest thinkers. Her many and celebrated books encompass issues of form and aesthetics, as well as African architecture, psychology, and philosophy. Immersing herself in multiple West African cultures—the Yoruba of Ife-Ife, Nigeria; the Batammaliba of northern Togo; the Abomey kingdom of Bénin—she has followed the path of early African art, picking up leads that tell us about the art’s makers and reflect back on us as viewers. In 2018 she was honored with a Yoruba chieftaincy title in Nigeria, in recognition of her scholarship on ancient Ife art.
An early adapter of using digital arts to inform and support humanities, in 1993 Suzanne Preston Blier created the electronic media project Baobab: Sources and Studies in African Visual Culture, at the time one of the largest academic studies of African art. The interactive website housing a database of 17,000 images included cultural studies on specific ethnic groups and a collection of multimedia case studies regarding the social roots of creativity. The Baobab project was the precursor to AfricaMap, a website created in 2007 to bring together the best cartographic data on the continent in an interactive GIS format. In 2011, the AfricaMap website, at Harvard’s Center for Geographic Research, was expanded into WorldMap, a web platform for creating, displaying, analyzing, and searching spatial and other forms of data across multiple disciplines. In 2013, Suzanne Preson Blier and a colleague received a Digital Humanities Implementation Grant Award to enhance WorldMap with their project, “Extending WorldMap to Make It Easier for Humanists and Others to Find, Use, and Publish Geospatial Information.”
Suzanne Preston Blier is the author of fifteen books, several of which have garnered critical acclaim and awards in academia as well as in the popular press. Her 2004 book, Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa, was named a “Best of the Year” book selection by the Washington Post. Her book The Royal Arts of Africa has been translated into five languages and is a leading textbook in the field. Her most recent book, Picasso’s Demoiselles: The Untold Origins of a Modern Masterpiece, forthcoming this July, draws on her extensive expertise to provide a new reading of Picasso’s iconic painting, showing the revolutionary piece to be Picasso’s representation of diverse women from the many cultures that he encountered in the colonial world in which he lived and painted.
Suzanne Preston Blier’s extensive scholarship in art history and the digital humanities has opened deep layers of understanding and nuanced perception in the fields of African art and architecture among her colleagues, students, and the public. Her visionary and pioneering work is a vibrant testimony to the cross-disciplinary inquiry and collaborative scholarship at the heart of humanities education, to which she is a rich contributor.