Monni Adams, 94; expert on African art, inspiring teacher
An anthropologist and historian, Monni Adams wrote extensively and curated many exhibits at Boston-area museums and institutions that drew from her deep well of knowledge about African art.
“For many years she was the only person who taught and brought African art and the arts of the Pacific not only to Harvard, but to the Boston area,” said Christraud Geary, senior curator emerita of African and Oceanic art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
“She was so active and such a fixture” at the MFA and other institutions that showcased anthropological art, said Geary, who now lives in Tucson. She added that Dr. Adams was a “remarkable scholar and mentor.”
“There was never a lecture at Harvard about Africa that Monni didn’t attend,” Geary said.
Dr. Adams, who published articles and curated exhibits until after she turned 90, died from complications of dementia Dec. 24 at Cadbury Commons assisted living facility in Cambridge. She was 94.
Into her 90s, she walked every day from her Cambridge home to Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
A tiny woman with a big personality, she began teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard in the 1970s. Except for traveling, she spent the rest of her life in Cambridge teaching, researching, and writing.
She was a “scholar of unique brilliance and creativity” whose “intellectual wingspan ranged from art history to social science and Indonesian textile to African sculpture, textiles, and body arts,” said Suzanne Preston Blier, a professor of fine arts and African and African-American studies at Harvard.
While Dr. Adams was known as an exhaustive researcher and a prolific writer, friends and colleagues said her greatest talent was teaching. Along with Harvard and MIT, she taught at Columbia, Wellesley College, and the Harvard Extension School.
“She was a superb teacher,” said Molly Martin of Austin, Texas, who was a docent at what is now the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., when she met Dr. Adams.
Later, when Martin moved to Boston, she took classes from Dr. Adams at Harvard Extension School. “She took a real interest in me and in other students, and convinced us that we could do something,” said Martin, who began teaching African art to Boston area high school students after being encouraged to do so by Dr. Adams.
“She convinced me to teach, and then she taught me how to teach,” Martin said. “Many of the people she taught became teachers because of her help. She helped loads of people.”
Dr. Adams was born Jeanne Marie Grozanich in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 27, 1920. Her birth certificate lists her father as Risto Grozanich, a logger born in Serbia. Her mother, the former Leontina Guy, was from France.
Known to all by the nickname Monni, Dr. Adams changed her surname at some point, though friends and colleagues don’t know why. They said that even though she was outgoing and social, she didn’t talk about what happened in her life before she enrolled in graduate school at Columbia, where she received degrees while in her 40s.
“That was always a big question mark,” Geary said. “She would just say that before she went into art history she spent a lot of time at the beach.”
Dr. Adams didn’t marry and had no children, and if anyone asked personal questions “she would abruptly change the subject,” Martin said. Still, she “had lots of friends and she loved to go out or entertain at home. She was very connected with all types of different people.”
In 1963, Dr. Adams graduated from Columbia with a master’s in art history and received a doctorate in Indonesian art history from Columbia in 1967. Records show that she had already received a master’s in political science from the University of Chicago.
Christopher Steiner, an art history professor at Connecticut College, used to meet Dr. Adams for lunch each week at the former Dolphin Seafood restaurant in Cambridge years ago when he was a Harvard student and she was his adviser. “She loved that place,” he said. “She loved having lunch with students and colleagues.”
She had a keen memory, he added, and was able to describe “every point, in great detail” of each lecture she attended. “She was amazing, eccentric, with very high energy. She had an incredible mind.”
Dr. Adams received awards and grants that included a Bunting Institute fellowship in Cambridge and a Fulbright scholarship. In her early 80s, she served as a senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. She published books, articles, and reviews and was 91 when the last of her many papers was published.
In 1982, she curated “Designs for Living” at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. The exhibition drew from private collections in Greater Boston and included beadwork, cast metal objects, masks, textiles, and wood sculptures, many of which were being shown publicly for the first time. Globe critic Robert Taylor listed it as one of the year’s 10 best Boston-area exhibitions.
The show’s items were culled “from mansions and walk-up apartments,” Dr. Adams told the Globe in 1982. “Many people in the Boston area went to Africa on special assignments and brought back interesting works that captured their special affection.”
A service at the Peabody Museum will be announced for Dr. Adams, who “had a full and eventful life,” said Rubie Watson, retired curator of comparative ethnology at the museum.
“She never suffered fools easily but was a generous friend to many,” Watson said. “She loved the world of ideas and her intellectual companionship will be sorely missed.”
In the late 1980s, Dr. Adams studied tribal art and what it meant to residents of small villages on the Ivory Coast, where it was created. She spent a year there and drew on research from that visit for “Masked Festivals of Canton Bo (Ivory Coast), West Africa,” an exhibit at the Tozzer Library at Harvard that was on display in early 2011, a few months after Dr. Adams turned 90.
“I’m so glad I found such an interesting subject to pursue that I can still think of articles to write,” she told the Harvard Gazette, which published a feature about the exhibit and her work with African art. “It’s an unending source of ideas and insights as to how people live together.”