Robert Farris Thompson, the groundbreaking Yale University art historian whose six decades of scholarship highlighted the diverse artistic and cultural complexity of the African diaspora—largely through his influential, bestselling 1983 book Flash of the Spirit—died November 30 in New Haven, Ct. He was 88.
Employing a multidisciplinary approach he termed “guerrilla scholarship,” Thompson demolished the notion of the primitivism of African cultural products, and employed a vast array of research techniques from art, anthropology, musicology, and archaeology, as well as by becoming fluent in many African languages, among them Ki-Kongo, Haitian Kreyol, Spanish, Yoruba and French.
Thompson’s work revealed a wisdom, far beyond the sculptures, and propulsive percussive music identified with the African-influenced culture of Black people throughout the diaspora. “Those people stand like giants in teaching us how to live,” Thompson said in a 1984 issue of Rolling Stone magazine. “There is a moral voice embedded in the Afro-Atlantic aesthetic that the West can’t grasp. They don’t see the monuments, just barefoot philosophy coming from village elders. But the monument is a grand reconciling art form that tries to morally reconstruct a person without humiliating him.”
Born on in 1932 in El Paso, Tex. to a physician father, and a mother who was an arts patron who appreciated Mexican culture, Thompson’s lifelong love affair with African diasporan culture began when he heard Afro-Cuban mambo music during a visit to Mexico City in 1950. “And that was it. I was locked in … and I have been chasing the mambo ever since,” Thompson says in a 1991 interview with Latin music scholar and author profile Ned Sublette.
In 1959 Thompson released his first and only LP recording, Safari of One: Primitive Rhythims On African Thumbpianos and West Indian Drums, and by 1961, Thompson had served in the Army, earned multiple degrees including a doctorate from Yale, and traveled to the Caribbean and Africa to continue his studies. He joined Yale’s faculty in 1965 and remained a popular professor there until his retirement in 2010.
One of Thompson’s students, noted scholar Henry Louis Gates, told Yale News in the wake of Thompson’s death, “Bob’s course was perhaps the most popular course for Black students in the whole of the Yale College course catalogue, I think for three reasons: First, because he established undeniable continuities among African, African American, and Afro-Latin American cultures using repeating visual examples; second, he was a remarkably entertaining lecturer, simply a visual and verbal feast of brilliance, with a mind seemingly in perpetual motion; and third, because he approached his subject with so much respect, humility, and, well, love, as hard work.”
The hard work was revealed in the articles Thompson began writing in 1958 for a variety of publications, including The Saturday Evening Review, and even in liner notes for the great Afro-Cuban jazz percussionist Mongo Santamaria. Thompson’s studies of Black Atlantic art were the basis of eight books: The first three, African Art in Motion: Icon and Act in the Collection of Katharine Coryton White (1974), Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba Art at UCLA (1976), and The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds (1981), were derived from well-received art exhibitions curated by Thompson.
But Thompson would garner his most significant critical acclaim in 1983 with the publication of Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. Largely consisting of five essay/overviews on sculpture, music, architecture, scripts, textiles and religions of the Kongo, Yoruba, Ejagham, Cross-River and Mande people of West and Central Africa, and their continuation in the Americas through the practices of Santeria, Condomble, and Voudun in the African diaspora. As Thompson writes in the book, “Flash of the Spirit is about visual and philosophic streams of creativity and imagination, running parallel to the massive musical and choreographic modalities that connect [B]lack persons of the Western hemisphere…”
Thompson’s last two books include Tango: The Art History of Love, (2005), which reveals the long overlooked Afro-Argentine musical and dance elements that created that storied dance-form, and Aesthetic of the Cool (2011), a compendium of Thompson’s unpublished, rare and out-of-print interviews and essays on salsa, New York City Afro-Caribbean culture, hip-hop, basketball and the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat. And there are reports that his long-anticipated book on mambo was completed at the time of his death.
Along with his impressive and expansive body of scholarly work, Thompson also leaves a long list of accomplished former students and academic disciples. They include art historians Kellie Jones, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient and a professor of Art History and African American Studies at Columbia University, and Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett professor of Art and Art History at Duke University; in addition to the British cultural theorist Paul Gilroy, who derives the concepts behind his acclaimed 1993 work of history, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, from Thompson’s scholarly theories and observations.