When Drewal was invited to write a praise piece for Robert Farris Thompson for this issue celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of African Arts, he soon realized it was beyond his body-mind-heart, because Bob himself is larger than life, a person who has touched and inspired so many folks in so many walks of life and thought. So Drewal contacted his dear friend and colleague C. Daniel Dawson, who may know Bob better than anyone, as well as Bob's immense circle of admirers. Drewal proposed that they solicit a variety of perspectives from the worldwide Master T “posse” and create a “posse praise poem” in his honor. We had only a short time to pull this together so we both reached out to friends far and wide, gave them four weeks to compose and send their thoughts and feelings in any way they chose. Some have written odes, others have sent poems. One sent a painting. Another sent a citation. Others have contributed photos of Bob past and present. Another sent a song that will be played (http://international.ucla.edu//media/podcasts/PROFE_T-ol-guw.mp3), and a dance that will be stepped (http://international.ucla.edu/media/mp4/drewal-dance-4j-kib.mp4) … All of these acts are acts of love meant for a person who inspires love and more. Where would we be in our understanding and appreciation for the arts of Africa and its many diasporas if the gods had not given us Bob? We think, not very far. He continues to show us the way to be and to think as he works on his latest opus on mambo. We hear his voice, we see his smile, we sense the move in his groove, and we learn once more to share the passion he possesses. Enjoy these words, images, and sounds of praise— this multi-oriki is for you!
To My Favorite Mambo-Freak
Henry John Drewal
“Flash” and “Spirit” come to my body-mind when I think about Robert Farris Thompson, affectionately known as “Bob” or “Master T.” His is a spirit that flashes with brilliance, depth, and richness. That extraordinary spirit inspired his Yoruba friends to give him a “pet name” that playfully riffed on his, calling him “Robert Fáàrí tó ńsùn!“—”Robert, the one who plays and enjoys life, even when sleeping!” He is an elder whose presence among us continues to inspire and encourage us to be bold in our feeling, thinking, and doing. I have admired him ever since our first encounters back in the 1960s, after my return from two years of teaching, learning, and a sculpting apprenticeship among Yoruba people in Nigeria. In the midst of graduate work at Columbia University writing my dissertation on Gelede masquerades, I heard he had just come out with Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba Art at UCLA (1971). I panicked, thinking he had just written everything I intended to write in my dissertation! Fortunately for me, his Gelede chapter was a short, pithy, and insightful one, so there was still room for me to say something original. Whew! I pressed on and wrote to him to ask if he would be an outside reader for me as I developed the work. Even though we had not met in person, he wrote back in his distinctive hand, saying he would be pleased and honored to do so. I was embraced by his unfailing, boundless generosity of spirit, his willingness to share and mentor, encourage and guide. He is affectionately known as “Master T”—and for me, not because he was the Master of Timothy Dwight College at Yale, but “Master Teacher” as well.
His classes at Yale are legendary. He inspired not only students of Africa and African Diaspora worlds, artists and art historians, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, historians, sociologists, writers, poets, dancers, and musicians—he inspired a generation of thinkers and makers and doers in the arts in all forms. I got to attend only one of those classes. Students were expected to embody the lessons he taught—with drumming, dancing, chanting, singing. And as I think about my own apprenticeships with Yoruba artists, in 1965 and again in 1978, and what I learned about myself and the embodied knowledge and wisdom of artists, the muscle memories and sensitivities that made them virtuosic creators, I think about Bob drumming on a lectern, or telling a joke in a distinctive accent, or getting down in his dance stance and mesmerizing his audiences with his joy and focus. When African Art in Motion came out (1974), it opened up a whole vista of sensory experience to be theorized and explored. So I continue to work on this (and its working on me!) with an approach I term sensiotics, because of his boldness in exploring the things that animate him sensorially—music, dance, and art. If Bob is, as he calls himself, a “mambo-freak,” then he has inspired me to be a sensiotic “salsa-freak.”
I also know his early and sustained work in the many diasporas of African artists—especially those in the Americas and the Caribbean—was the foundation for a perspective that has come to be known as the Black Atlantic World. Before any others, he bridged the intellectual gap that often divides Africanists from Americanists, pushing them to recognize the deep and complex cultural beliefs and practices on both sides of this Black Atlantic World that time and space have shaped, and continue to shape. Witness his masterful and corrective account of the history of tango—that art history of love (2005)! For those who make those smooth and seductive moves, ignorant of tango's African and Black Atlantic origins, Master T has given them knowledge and understanding. He will do the same with mambo—giving credit where credit is due. His commitment to the truth, his passion for justice, and his intellectual honesty and humility make him an elder to honor and emulate. I feel blessed to have him as a mentor and friend. Continue to teach and preach Master T!—Ase! Ire O!
Robert Farris Thompson: Some Pictures and Some History
This contact sheet is a flashback to pioneer days: RFT's first big exhibition of his life long project, the 1968 “African and Afro-American Art: the Transatlantic Tradition,” 225 objects exhibited by the Museum of Primitive Art. With an undertone of incredulity, New York Magazine explained, “The show is designed to offer proof-positive that the Negro has a vast and telling art historical tradition. There are immense ties between the visual arts of West Africa with the arts of the blacks in North America, the Caribbean, and South America …” The catalogue text was too late to print, but sixteen years later, it formed the core of Flash of the Spirit. Peter Moore, a prominent photographer of the downtown art world, photographed the exhibition objects and gave me this contact sheet of us installing. You see RFT presiding over objects waiting to be mounted, Frances Fleming hanging an Ibibio mask, and me examining a headdress (loan from the Nigerian Museum?). Also on that sheet—shots from a loft showing of a Nam June Paik exhibition. Bob was always avant garde.
I took courses from RFT at Yale while studying for my PhD at The Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. During those years I was also full time Assistant Registrar at the Museum of Primitive Art and met Bob 1968 in the whirlwind of his show. Twenty-five years later, as Executive Director of the Museum for African Art, I was lucky enough to midwife his definitive exhibition and catalogue on the same subject, the monumental and unforgettable “Face of the Gods.” Bob was always trying to do fifty things in the time a normal person needed for one, and this was a big, hugely ambitious show requiring many feats none of us had accomplished before. As deadlines approached Bob would strap his computer into the front seat and drive to New York so the Museum staff could pry his text “out of the machine.” He would sit across from me discussing installation challenges with a never-mentioned wad of herbal material plastered onto the top of his head. Everybody understood that wad and the genius beneath it was giving us much more than another exhibition. In the course of the show, visitors left offerings of hundreds of dollars in change and small bills on the altars in the galleries. I later learned the staff, wearing gloves, periodically cleared it away and donated it to an AIDS charity.
RFT adores two of my most favorite people on the planet: my grandmother and my mother.
My elegant and beautiful-in-every-way grandmother, Virginia Davis Taylor, was a secretary at the Yale University Art Gallery when RFT was a student; RFT adored her.
My sunny and spirited-in-every-way mother, Pamela Bisbee Simonds, worked at Dwight Hall on the Yale campus when RFT was a professor (my mom would on occasion join his drumming circles on the grounds of Old Campus—uninvited, no doubt, but always most welcome). RFT adores her.
Because of my grandmother, RFT and I have a special bond born out of mutual admiration for her and that depth of feeling that develops between two people who knew an elder-turned-ancestor, and who wouldn't care to ignore or overlook the deep connection created by this kind of generational history.
Because of my mom, I am lucky to have a friendship with RFT that goes back to 1986!
In 1986 unbeknownst to my mom I was reading a book like no other, Flash of the Spirit, in preparation for my first solo trip to Africa.
I was planning to travel to Africa not for research nor with a grant, or with any other goal than to travel to a place on this planet that was entirely unknown by my very well-traveled family. When I was in my early twenties I interviewed family members, for whom travel was a very important part of living and learning, and came to find out that no one in my family had been to West Africa (they had been to East Africa, South Africa, and the northern countries).
My decision to travel to West Africa for several months was born out of a young adult's desire to traverse new landscapes and experience places, peoples, and cultures that were unknown to my father, grandfathers, and other members of my well-traveled family.
My mother was a bit worried about my solo adventure, so she asked me to come to New Haven to have lunch with “an African expert at Yale.” At that age, I was not too interested in the academic life at Yale and I resisted until she told me who it was: Robert Farris Thompson! Hurrying down to New Haven to have lunch in Dwight Hall with my mom and Master T, I was so excited to meet this singular mind! We sat down in the Commons Dining Hall. Thompson immediately asked me if I had a scrap of paper, onto which he quickly sketched a map of the continent, and then crowded it with skull and bones iconography. He finished his map. He looked at my mom. He looked at me, and said, ‘If you promise your mom and me that you will not visit any of the countries at war [a.k.a. the skull and bones], then I will bless this trip!” While I was looking for adventure I wasn't seeking that much of an adventure and eagerly obliged. He then said, “You are going to fall in love with the continent and return many times. You are also going to have bad teeth because you will only have beer and orange soda for drinking.”
I still have that map. It has been with me on every adventure everywhere since 1986. And so has RFT: Africa, Africa again, NYC, NC, New Orleans, and Africa again.
Since that first lunch, we have had countless lunches together in New Haven with our family.
I have never been a student at Yale, but I have always been a student of RFT. RFT has been a mentor, friend, colleague, and supporter! But so much more.
RFT and I have discussed not only Africa but American culture too—we have a full-on appreciation for the underappreciated artist from Tennessee Bessie Harvey. We are both intrigued beyond belief by memory jugs. We have long seen the genius of Lonnie Holley and Thornton Dial, James Hampton and Nellie Mae Rowe.
I am realizing while writing this that during our thirty-plus year friendship RFT has never said “no” to me … he even traveled thru a Nor'easter to get to a lecture I had organized for him to give at Winston-Salem State University.
RFT has lectured at conferences I have organized, in organizations I have run. He has written in books I have authored and published.
The cherry on top of these activities was the “Flash” conference I organized with Danny Dawson in fall of 2014 in New Orleans, to recognize the importance of that book, the book that introduced me to RFT in the beginning.
RFT has shown me that the history of art is not a straight line and that the discipline deepens with the appreciation that what we don't yet know is what we are working so hard to uncover and explore.
Every time I am with RFT—like all of us—I am in awe of his mind and his moves, his head and his heart, but I am also reminded—as is he because we always talk about it, every time—of our shared adoration for my grandmother and our mutual enjoyment of my mother. It is quite something to see your two favorite women reflected in this giant of art history, every. time. you. meet. him.
I am certain that I will never have a friendship like this one again.
Ijuba (Homage to Baba/Master T.)
Ẹni a bá bá lábà, là ńpè ní Baba.
Ẹ̀ ẹ́ gbó, ẹ̀ ẹ́ tọ́, Àṣẹ.
Orógbó ni í gbó’ni í sáyé, obì ni í bi ibi sọ́run.
It is the elder one meets on a farm that we call Baba (Father/Master)
(Thus, it is only proper that I respectfully refer to Professor Robert Farris Thompson as Baba/Master).
May you live long and remain physically and mentally sound. Àṣẹ.
Orógbo [bitter kola] it is that enables one to live long while obi [four-lobed kolanut] drives away evil forces.
Mo júbà o
Àdáṣe ni í hun ni
Ìbà kì Í hun ọmọ ènìyàn
Bí ekòló bá júbà ilẹ̀
Ilẹ̀ á ya'nu
Bí ọmọdé bá júbà àgbà
Á roko ọjọ́ ayé d'alẹ́
Mo júbà o.
We acknowledge your presence and pay our respects to you as our elder
To embark on any action unilaterally without your support is not only to invite failure but to court disaster.
Whenever the earthworm pays homage to the dry and solid earth, the earth opens its doors to the boneless earthworm
Similarly, when younger folks pay due respect to their elders, they live to a ripe old age.
Today, we pay our respect to you as our elder and we acknowledge your presence.
Baba Thompson's life and work brings to mind the following excerpt from the oríkì of the legendary sculptor, Àrè, Làgbàyí, ará Ọ̀jọwọ̀n, “The itinerant Làgbàyí, citizen of Ọ̀jọwọ̀n.” More importantly, we note the enthusiastic reception he receives every time he returns from one of his celebrated carving expeditions:
Níjọ́ tí Àrè Làgbàyí ń toko ọ̀nà á bọ̀
Apá ń sáá lapá
Ìrókò wọn a dìgbò l’ọ̀pẹ̀
Wọn láwọn ò mọ bii Làgbàyí ó sọgbá ọnà yí kà
Ẹni o kúrú, ńtiro ni wọ́n ń tiro
Ẹni o gùn, wọn a bẹ̀rẹ̀
Wọ́n n se, “Kújénrá, Agbósokùn”
‘Lé wo lò ń lọ
Ọ̀nà wo lò ń rè
Ǹ bá mọbi ò ń rè
Ma bá ọ lọ
Kújẹ́nrá o, Agbósokùn
Ọmọ a gbẹ́gi wúrúkú mú ṣe láyaba
Àrè, Làgbàyí, ará Ọ̀jọwọ̀n
On the day Làgbàyí, the itinerant artist was returning from one of his carving expeditions,
Apá trees collided with one another in trepidation.
Ìrókò trees collided with palm trees in great fear.
They wondered where next Làgbàyí would place his load of carving implements.
Short people in the crowd stood on their toes,
While very tall spectators stooped down [to catch a glimpse of him].
They all exclaimed “Kújenrá, whose other name is Agbósokùn,
Where are you going?
On which road are you going to tread?
I wish I knew where you were going,
I would have gone with you.
Ikújenrá, whose other name is Agbósokùn,
Offspring of those who carved small pieces of wood and turned them into queens
Làgbàyí, the itinerant citizen of Ọ̀jọwọ̀n.”1
Given Thompson's own literal and intellectual journeys and his extraordinarily warm reception in classrooms, lecture halls and exhibition venues after returning from his numerous research trips to Africa, Brazil, South America, and the Caribbean, he is eminently qualified to be called an ‘Àrè'. Àrè Làgbàyí was very fondly remembered in Yoruba oral traditions as the artist who pioneered new forms and styles in carving. He set new aesthetic standards at home and abroad. His elevated status in the society enabled him to interact with, and influence his patrons, among them Yoruba sovereigns, chiefs and diviners. Where Làgbàyí's carvings have not survived for us appreciate, Thompson's intellectual work and legacy are very much with us and will inspire future generations of scholars in African art.
God and Bob at Yale
Painting and caption by José Bedia
During a 1992 interview published in African Arts (reprinted in Aesthetic of the Cool, 2011), I asked Bob Thompson whether there was a god in his life. Without skipping a beat, he replied,
Oh, there are several gods in my life. An Afro-Atlantic person who, as I am, is a member of Yoruba religion through the worship of Erinle; a member of the Kongo religion through initiation into Mayombe in Havana; or a member of the Leopard Society though initiation in Cameroon, can write art history from within that knowledge, as Reinhold Neibuhr wrote from within his. If you are going to deal with a liturgy, it could be done as a non-believer, but under extreme difficulty. One could crack certain codes, supply certain grammars. But it was not until I had been initiated into Erinle, received my two stones, that Yoruba priestess Abatan took me seriously as a colleague, as opposed to that strange oyinbo who came to her door with amusing insistence …
What I found most compelling in Thompson's response was his affirmation of Black Gods—not merely as powerful metaphors (pace Wole Soyinka) but as living realities who intersect with modern life—making his confiteor at a time when declaring for Jesus (or other divine beings) in a personal way could destroy your credibility with academic colleagues, afraid of being charged with violating “Enlightenment principles” by appreciating religious praxis as something a white professor might actually do. Clearly this was not a worry for Bob. He isn't in the habit of checking his Black Atlantic spirituality at JFK customs, nor in finding the gods of Afro-Atlantis ancillary to other contemporary divinities. As he further revealed, “I don't think I was prepared to read the Holy Bible until I came back from two and a half years in Nigeria, and opened up King David's psalms. He finally spoke to me. His images had laterite on them. Nigeria prepared me for even more: how to handle religiosity in a way that can get at spirit and tradition without any awkward phrasing.”
This was the kind of discourse that should have made William F. Buckley, Yale graduate and patron saint of Goldwater-Reagan-Cruz conservatism, shout hallelujah. In 1951, a generation before Thompson published Flash of the Spirit, Buckley had published God and Man at Yale, decrying the absence of any transcendent metaphysics among the Yale professoriate, or more generally, among America's soi-disant intelligentsia. Buckley envisioned God and Yale on a collision course, for, in words which continue to inspire Tea Party Trumpistas, Buckley wrote, “I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world.”
As the old saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for, it'll probably come true.” Of course, when Buckley intoned “God,” he was not referring to Obatala or Nzambi Mpungu. But a generation later, members of the Yale football team were wearing T-shirts imprinted with Ashe, while Bob's grad students were confronting the orisha, minkisi, and vodun with personal commitments far transcending the strategies of “participant observation.” Much of this revolution in scholarly attitudes can be traced to the influence of Flash of the Spirit, through its declamation on the moral attributes of Black Gods and its hermeneutic unraveling of dikenga and firma as they perdure in the philosophies of Africa and its diaspora. While Flash ushered in a new place for Black Atlantic religion inside academia (though not in ways that Buckley might have appreciated), it assumed an even more powerful place outside the academy, where it was included alongside William Bascom's volumes on Ifa divination, as canonical theology in the consultation rooms of botanicas from Miami to LA, and propagated in the theological tracts of John Mason's Yoruba Theological Archministry in Brooklyn.
The credibility of Bob's scholarship derives in large part from his religious commitments, as he explained when I asked him about the role of ecstasy in his fieldwork:
I don't believe that scholarship is a zero-sum game. I think that the more ecstatic you are, the more committed you are to being serious. So this is what neo-Puritans, who might be put-off by the ecstatic level in African-Atlantic scholarship, cannot understand: it is an earned ecstasy. Just as you cannot do fieldwork until you speak the language, so you cannot be cassé until you have something to be broken. The more you crisscross the Atlantic, the more integument you meet, the more resistance, the tougher you become. It gives you more and more right to get happy.
Bob's sermons turn Malinowski's methodology on its head. We now go to the field to learn from masters. To reshape lessons taught by Voltaire and Marx in order to reinfuse their data with the ecstatic, to demonstrate that religion is deep structure and not epiphenomenon. “To me, Afro-Atlantic methodology is by artistic example. Study and absorb Coltrane, don't ask how he did it. Paint Betye and Allison Saar until you become yourself. Until emergent identity makes all those influences move for you.” So Master T issues the call to African art historians, not as some John the Baptist crying in the desert, but as St. Paul in a J. Press suit, preaching a New Age revival for some very old religions.
As part of his study of African dance criticism, Robert Farris Thompson on occasion entered into the dance himself, and in doing so, elicited commentary on his own efforts that in turn revealed perceptive insights by local critics. As described in African Art in Motion (1974:259), herewith a few observations regarding his own efforts:
Later in Ago ShaSha, a village famed for its Gelede dancers, Adejumon met the writer by chance on 29 July 1965 and observed the writer enter the dance ring during an Egbe Arobajo dance; a battle of dance speedily broke out, the writer versus the local master of the dance, with predictable results. Adejumon felt the writer had committed an aesthetic atrocity and wasted no time in enumerating the reasons.
The carrying of the legs and of the entire body was balanced (in the dancing of the local master) (ese to ngbe ati gbogbo ara dogba).
The creating of [phrases to match the] drumming was fitting in the case of that particular local boy, [far] exceeding the foreigner's [talents] (dida ilu omo na bamu, ju ti oyinbo lo).
Various styles of dancing were called for by the drumming and the local member danced them as they were sounded (orisisi ijo ni omo na njo ti o ba ilu mu) … the foreigner not (oyibo ko).
Robert Farris Thompson Tribute
Revealing the Faces of Gods and Kings,
Here to fore unrecognized,
In the shadows of ignorance and dismissal,
As they Mambo and Tango Artistically in Motion,
Through the Four moments of the Sun,
Around the Atlas Mountains' Midnight Indigo Waters,
Reflecting the Cool Aesthetic,
Expressed in Erinle's Ikoko,
Through the sacred caress
of Àbátàn of Oke-Odan.
Beginning in a place whose name—“The Pass” (El Paso)— emanates from the idea of “to proceed” on the banks the Grand River of the North (Rio Grande), was enlisted here a man, a spirit, to journey there, across a primordial liquid expanse that under his gaze would come to be redefined for us all, on the way to the land of Ancestors he did not know but knew him, to the banks of Odo Yewa, in the realm of the primordial hunter-healer Eyinle, to receive keys to unlocking windows, doors, channels, portals, frequencies and ultimately insights we were all waiting for. Who would think? How? Why?
Innate curiosity? Ambition? Integrity? Generosity? Awareness? Open-mindedness? Instincts? All? That would allow him to become Asiwaju, the one who goes before, a scout per se. A beacon Illuminating the Path for those of us whose destiny it was/is to come his way on our way, on the journey that we have been charged by our Ori to navigate. It is as Yoruba philosophy teaches, his destiny and it is our destiny to know him. He has done his job.
We have to decide how to approach ours. Not that his is necessarily done, only Olodumare, Ori, and Ifa can know that, but what he has accomplished to this point is more “Elephant” than most could even consider of trying to chew! Hence, we take note and we celebrate, as we should.
It is often recommended that one follow the Path. For some, like RFT, it is not about following the Path. It's more about going where there is no path and leaving a trail. Easier said than done. There is no model, no plan. There are examples, but how does one quantify that? It is not something that everyone, anyone can do. To emulate the product of a singular mold. Nor is it something that one really can plan to do. It is ultimately who someone is and as a result it is what that someone does. But then there is a catch, choice!
I have been taught, and I believe, that it is frequently the ancestors that choose. And the ancestors are selective in who they choose because their agenda, their priority is not necessarily consistent with ours. IF the ancestors do choose one, they call. When they call, first of all we have to be paying attention so we hear the call. If we do, we have choices. To answer the call or not. If we do decide to answer their call, and if we do then conduct ourselves consistent with the appropriate standards, then the ancestors will lead us to where, who, what, when and how we need for the next step, phase, stage and we hopefully progress. Some of us get stuck, lose our way, get distracted or otherwise diverted and some of us perhaps were/are not on the right path to begin with. That's another conversation.
In the case of RFT I think it's safe to say we have witnessed someone who was selected, was chosen, was called, did hear, did choose to answer the call, conducted himself according to the standards appropriately, was given access and then turned around and shared it. How lucky are we? I think it's safe to say, We're all the better for the journey of RFT!!!
I've been blessed to know a few great individuals along my way. Perhaps we all have. I consider Robert Farris Thompson to be one of those who I am indebted to for his vision, his work, his commitment and generosity.
Collectively our paths, our journeys, our thought processes have been nourished by the walk of RFT. We've been given the opportunity to peek behind and beyond the veil into realms that before him, were ignored, dismissed, overlooked, frequently misinterpreted and commonly fragmented and disconnected. Through his approach, his efforts, his creativity, generosity, his humanity, Humpty Dumpty is a bit closer to being put back together. We can give thanks and we can celebrate. And we can honor one who has done so much to get us there.
Ori Tutu ‘nla
Oju Tutu ‘nla
Enu Tutu ‘nla
E ku' se
Translation from the Portuguese by Isis McElroy
Qual o poder da palavra dita
si ela é percussão, dança e canto?
O vento que sopra a palavra sonora
fecunda a terra.
A palavra é plantada no papel
para reter ali conhecimento
segredo a ser germinado
como um grão guardado
de tantas viagens
Robert Farris Thompson
com a sombra dos ancestres que visitou
sons da África negra
vozes de diásporas atlânticas
de suas múltiplas andanças
RTF traz de volta para as Américas
inverte o processo
ele descoloniza a si próprio
como norte-americano branco
para descobrir a real essěncia
coração negro vermelho
sob a pele branca.
A simples presença dele
acende as chamas que estavam apagadas
enquanto fornece mapas de tesouros desconhecidos.
E assim o que é som reverbera na folha de papel branco
acordando suas cores adormecidas pelo colonialismo
da razão pura eurocěntrica
forjado pelo materialismo histérico
pela repressão ao corpo de sua relação plena com o espírito da natureza.
Nossa alma vibra, ela se acorda com novas vontades
capturando algo que nossos sentidos suspeitavam
mas que até o momento não possuíamos conhecimentos para que bailassem livres
em inusitadas conexões.
Master T nos deu régua e compasso
para perceber que ciěncia, arte e religião
são parte da mesma trama
nas diversas culturas africanas desembarcadas no Continente Americano.
A gente aprende quando reconhece o que não sabe
em alguém que traz algo que descobrimos pela primeira vez
trazendo à luz um desejo antigo não revelado
tecendo inesperadas grafias
refazendo antigas gramáticas em vocabulários corporais pelo espaço imprevisível.
Mas afinal, o que é o símbolo sem o conhecimento secreto das religiões?
um amontoado de retas e curvas,
Bob traz palavras exatas
suas paginas falam baixinho para quem quer ouvir.
O que seria das grandes distancias sem a palavra?
Como pensar o que vivemos sem o verbo?
Se não fosse a palavra como entender o a presença do passado africano
habitando corpos nas Américas em suas milhares de manifestações
nos diversos mundos das diásporas experimentadas pelos nossos sentidos?
Seu estudo recria a África Negra, da forma como foi vivido, em sua eloquěncia
recupera o comportamento em suas ações individuais e coletivas
trazendo o Outro para tão perto
como se o Outro pudesse estar entre Nós mesmos
sendo assim Um de Nós.
Axé, Babá, eu desejo que continue sempre a tocar o teu atabaque
e soltar a tua voz
eles estão sempre reverberando em nossos corações e mentes.
What is the power of the spoken word if it is percussion, dance, and chant?
The wind that blows the uttered word fertilizes the land.
The word is planted on paper to keep there its knowledge secret to sprout like a cared for grain gathered treasure made of so many journeys research meditations.
Robert Farris Thompson orchestrates all by himself with the ancestral shadows he visited sounds from Black Africa voices of its Atlantic diasporas from his multiple wanderings embodiments confabulations reconnections.
RFT brings back to the Americas keys traces footsteps evidence.
His luggage inverts the process he decolonizes himself as a white North-American so as to discover the true essence black red heart under white skin.
His simple presence rekindles flames providing maps of unknown treasures.
And this is how the sounds reverberate on a white sheet of paper waking up its colors once brought to sleep by colonialism in its pure eurocentric reason forged by hysteric materialism by the repression of the body and its full relationship with the spirit of nature.
Our souls vibrate, waking themselves up with new wishes capturing something our senses could not even suspect but that up till then we did not enough so as to let them dance freely in such unusual connections. Master T gave us ruler and compass to realize that science, art, and religion are part of the same woven fabric in the diverse African cultures that came ashore the American Continent.
We learn when we recognize what we do not know when someone brings something we discover for the first time bringing to light an old desire kept secret weaving unforeseen letters remaking ancient grammar in corporal vocabulary through unexpected spaces.
But after all, what is the symbol without the secret knowledge of religions? a bunch of lines and curves, Bob brings precise words his pages speak lowly for those who want to hear.
What would great distances be without the word? How would we think what we live without the verb? If it wasn't for words, how would we understand the presence of the African past inhabiting American bodies in a myriad of manifestations in diverse worlds of these diasporas experienced by our senses?
His study recreates Black Africa in the manner it was lived, in its eloquence it recovers behaviors in its individual and collective actions bringing the Other so close as if the Other could be among Us and be One of Us.
Ashe, Baba, I wish you continue playing your atabaque and allowing us to hear you you will be always beating in our hearts and minds.
Praise Song for RFT
Although I am not a former student or close academic colleague of Robert Farris Thompson, he has been a subtle yet crucial influence on my life and self-perception ever since I first read his essay “African Influence on the Art of the United States” in the early 1970s when I was in graduate school. This was his contribution to the publication for Black Studies in the University, a symposium organized in 1967 by the Black Student Alliance at Yale, a group that included Craig Foster, the cousin of my longtime friend and colleague Leslie King Hammond. As I searched for more comparable input about my heritage and history, I took in the 1974 exhibition on the Black Atlantic that he was involved at the Museum for African Art (when it was housed in a townhouse on West 54th Street across the street from MoMA). There was no catalogue to accompany that exhibition, but one was promised for the future, and finally in 1983 Professor Thompson published Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, which became a cultural and artistic bible for so many of us. Then over the next three decades I felt he recruited me to see African art in motion rather than merely on a pedestal in a vitrine, to look upon the Face of the Gods in African-based altars, practice the art of the Cool, and to reconfigure my notions about the ubiquitous dance form of the tango.
So I was pleasantly surprised but ready when Gloria Khury—then at the press of the State University of Pennsylvania and now proprietor of Periscope Publishing—contacted me to write an introduction to an anthology of Professor Thompson's essays. After a bit of haggling over the focus of the selection and a gentle rebuke on my part for the overly masculine focus of the content, we concluded Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music. This project enriched my perception of the unique phenomenon that is Robert Farris Thompson. In his essays—which included several unexpected early analyses of Afro-Latino jazz—he revealed himself to be as much rigorous scholar as engaged critic; as much innovative theoretician as enthusiastic fan. The consummate cultural flaneur, he revealed that he was able to move in and out of and around in multiple cultural contexts with equal ease and perception, be it a village in Africa or a jazz club in the West Village of New York City. Whether writing early reviews of Afro-jazz or parsing the visual polyrhythms of quilts by African American women, he taught us how we were cool and complex and stunningly original.
Thompson's contribution over the last five decades to the growth and development of African and African American studies as a strong and more widespread academic specialization is immeasurable. His intellectual strategies have been benchmarks for new approaches to art historical analyses of cultural production in Africa evaluating African cultural practice based on criteria from its own context rather than solely from outside points of view. As if heeding the cautionary tone of the Surrealist renegade Georges Batille, he rejects the habitual hierarchical and patronizing positioning of the “civilized” (i.e., European or white American) over the “primitive” (African, Pacific, First Peoples) that has reinforced the power relationships of colonialism and postcolonialism. He draws on the cultural philosophies and practices that contextualize artistic production in Africa, taking into account realms of temperament and demeanor, as well as conditions of place and “territory.” As Thompson surveys the “continuity in change” of the “indelible cultural codes” of African cultures he also analyzes “transoceanic” pairings of cultural manifestations in the Cross River, Lower Niger area and western Cuba; Dahomey (now Benin) and Haiti; in the Akan regions of Ghana and those in Surinam.
We also have access to Thompson's path to his intellectual and experiential states. In an interview with anthropologist and curator Donald Consentino, he eloquently traces his life journey from Dudley School in El Paso, Texas, in an ambiance where boogeywoogey, rhythm and blues, and rock music revealed to him “that African Americans had a different spiritual vision.” What is fascinating is his ability to observe various manifestations, experience various things in different contexts—Elegba shrine in New York, James Brown on stage, Cuban rumba music, and country music—to “role-switch fast” and make connections with all these elements in such a way that they eventually coalesced into an aesthetic and art historical practice.
In summary, Thompson never fails to provoke and challenge us with ideas that spark a reordering of our priorities and reexamination of long-standing assumptions about race and class. His intellectual endeavors have forged lineages in the work of scholars such as Rowland Abiodun, Suzanne Blier, Sylvia Boone, Henry Drewal, Kate Ezra, Alisa LaGamma, Babatunde Lawal, Moyo Okediji, Mary Nooter Roberts, Zoë E. Strother, Susan Vogel, and Roslyn Walker. He also can be said to have reestablished the awareness of the unique black Atlantic identity among Africans on this side of the Atlantic that is the focus of the scholarship of individuals such as Houston Baker, Kamau Braithwaite, Henry Louis Gates, Gray Gundaker, Leslie King Hammond, Eileen Southern, Deborah Ambush, C. Daniel Dawson, Kellie Jones, Marta Moreno Vega, Sterling Stuckey, John Vlach, and Maude Waldman. In the context of the world in 2017 his work only gains cogency for all of us who find our identity, our culture, even our very being reviled and discredited by the larger society. And so I offer this praise song to him and state unequivocally that we continue to be in his debt.
Honoring Robert Farris Thompson
Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, you forced the world to see the sometimes blinding light of a cultural truth that spans centuries and an ocean. You have devoted your life to cataloging the genealogy of genius, tracing the artistic roots of the Americas across the Atlantic to Africa. After fifty years of your scholastic leadership, insight, and intellectual courage, we can trace rhythmic and aesthetic provenance back to the creative motherland and unite through an undeniable common cultural ancestry.
As the longest master of a residential college in Yale's history, even noted scholars become students in your presence, as you lead them in an examination of Africa's cultural impact on the world with a debt of context few can surpass, incorporating religion, linguistics, dance, philosophy, humanities, and anthropology. Through your landmark book, Flash of the Spirit, you boldly drew a straight line through the Middle Passage and highlighted visual art, music, and dance traditions so strong they took root on continents on the opposite side of the world. You have traced the tango backwards through time from Argentina to the Congo, recast the mambo as a keystone of ethnochoreology, and framed hip-hop as a direct descendant of the “cool” embedded in the cultural heritage of creative expression transmitted to the Western Hemisphere through the Atlantic slave trade and reincarnated with each generation. You showed how spirituality was a key to survival in the diaspora, boldly examining the Face of Gods in a study of altars of the Black Atlantic world. You have shown how our collective cultural soul is interlinked with the diaspora, and how we must respect Africa as our artistic inspiration and guiding light.
Dr. Thompson [we honor you] for incontrovertibly resetting the standard for art history, for elevating the contributions of a people too often overlooked, and for showing us our sameness through our common cultural ancestry, and for providing us the model of scholarship for the future.
—Excerpted from a citation for Robert Farris Thompson for an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, presented by Leslie King Hammond, PhD, Founding Director, Center for Race and Culture, Maryland Institute College of Art at Undergraduate Commencement, May 18, 2015.
Painting and caption by José Bedia
Hear this oriki performed by the author at http://international.ucla.edu//media/podcasts/PROFE_T-ol-guw.mp3
prophet of light
illuminating generations of minds
sharing jewels of your amazing journey
from Texas to Mbanza Kongo
via México, Buenos Aires, Bahia,
La Habana, New York and New Haven.
a flash of spirit
that the faces of the gods could be seen
for light years
through ancient wood, iron and bronze.
Amid tombstones, textiles and clay,
mambo's myriad meanings,
cosmological black truths
uncovered in South Carolina
disseminated with a jinga
and an esquiva baixa
centuries removed from Angola
in front of a university podium.
scores of fascinated seekers
bathing in, absorbing
every word every pearl of wisdom
uniquely backlit to feature the relevance
of the clear tweet emanating from
the 15th century ngoma,
the timeless text from an nfumbe
in a joint effort between
the quick and the dead
to wake the collective slumber,
so as to prevent yet another round of slavery.
Jeyé, jeyé, jeyé
Asere, asere, asere, asere, asere
monina oh eh
asere, asere, asere
asere, asere, asere
Mana kankúbia komo índia Abakuá.
Praise the birth of the Abakuá through the drum.
yumba obonékue yumba
Initiations bring unity.
Mi padrino, Julito Barondó te saluda.
In today's entertainment-worshipping,
materialistic society where religion is used
for everything that is not spiritual,
your utterances take on increasing urgency
as it is now particularly crucial
to experience African cultural truths
in the halls of hallowed institutions …
We the innumerable
that you have inspired and enlightened
have no way to thank you
for being the effervescent lamp
to lead us on the noble road less travelled—
the infinite search for justice
in the academy and on the planet.
Poetic, historical justice in furious opposition to
the immoral omission of Black truth
in the annals of Western society.
Your groundbreaking, barrier smashing
example of how to study, how to teach,
how to stand, humbly,
before hidden treasures
before they are liquidated,
like so many other
pirates bootys and ransoms.
Your legacy is the nganga—
an altar to eternity and her elements—
respect for life and the planet,
a direct line to the elders and the unseen and
most importantly, to spirit—the spirit of freedom, of
creativity, of justice, of the river, of time.
You are the master of communication—
the precious thread between the centuries,
between dynasties, between graveyards, brothels,
slave barracks, cotton fields and chitlin’ circuit blues clubs.
The link in our chain to break the chains.
You are our Fernando Ortiz, our Jack Kerouac,
our Arturo Schombourg, our August Wilson,
supreme storyteller of non-fiction, negros brujos,
be-bop hipster academagician connecting first
through the gut, then the heart, then the spirit,
and then the head.
Seems that we just met
yet have known each other through lifetimes.
You have much in common
with the relentless, unforgiving clock,
for we have grown to depend upon being awakened by you
and reminded consistently
that there is no rest for the weary.
Our stay here is brief but our mission is eternal,
to pay it forward and thusly add a grain of sand
to the endless, wondrous, beautiful beach
to which you invited us.
Unknowingly baptized by Diego Rivera, Perez Prado, Peraza
Arcaño, Tito, Ray, Mongo, Israel, Orestes, the Palladium,
Bird, el plante y El Monte,
glowing with Mambo Madness,
the lectern is your pulpit
from which you've preached us
with remarkable clarity
to higher ground.
Saoco, batanga, batiri, tango
para hervir la malanga
pa’ bailar el mambo
un ajiaco caliente
pa’ abrirse la mente.
I swear I see spirits dancing milonga and I
hear distant Candombe drums
in minute three of your address—
borokotó, borokotó, borokotó
afincao y amarrao
como dice el viejo Cañengue,
brujo de reputación
garabato lungowa ae, garabato
Your prolific genius is amazing in every way.
Every single ounce and page
of every one of your published works oozes
with the same passion.
I love that you are a sarcastic, progressive sage
who can profoundly pontificate at length
on myriad fascinating subjects of significance,
but that you also thrive on a beer,
a bar, a conversation
and getting as street as need be.
I thank you not only on behalf of the legions,
decades and generations of fans, admirers,
drumheads, afrophiles, anthropologists and
ethnographers whom you have delighted through
your research, papers, books, lectures and stories
but also on behalf of the babalawos, the sacerdotes, the iyalochas,
babalochas, iyawoses, ayugbonas, apetegbises, fodduces, mambos,
nfumbes, tatas, obonekues, iyambas, mokongos, ekueñónes, nasa=
koes, monibonkóses, and every Lucumi, Yoruba, Arará, Abakuá,
Bakóngo, Bantú, Iyesá descendent and ancestor all of whom you
have so highly honored
by giving them a place of dignity in academia
and recognizing their unique grace and wisdom of the ages
in the evolution of our planet and of our species.
you are a blessing.
May your path forever be lit.
The next beer is on me.
Something for RFT
A while back, I wrote the following short tribute in honor of Robert Farris Thompson, my mentor, one of the few people I call Bàbá simply out of respect and love. The piece was printed in a program for a Yale conference in his honor; later, I read it aloud at the unveiling of his portrait as Master of Yale's Timothy Dwight College. There's lots more to say about Robert Farris Thompson, and over the last few weeks I've burned through lots of pages trying to say it. But rereading this piece, it still seems to hit a few right notes, so I'm proud and honored to include it here with some minor revisions.
If you're reading this journal, you know Robert Farris Thompson, who stands among the preeminent historians of the arts of Africa and its diasporas. He is one of the field's founders and still its greatest revolutionary, the man who made “Cool” a viable academic category. Thus far, Thompson's life's work has comprised an extended praise-song to the genius of Black Atlantic cultural creation. It is an achievement of profoundest aspiration, crystallized over more than half a century of tireless research on four continents and innumerable islands, and inspired by the creolizing impulses of mambo: a dance, an argument, a matter of the spirit. That research covers the expanse of a millennium, but is inextricably keyed to the energies of the last six decades—a tumultuous era that witnessed the decolonization of African and Caribbean nations, the birth and struggles of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the ascendancy (and yes, struggles) of the first black US president, and a few other events along the way. Tempered by that era, Thompson highlights “Blackness” as a fighting word, muscular and sinuous, a source of unifying strength that is also infinitely diverse, resisting every racist stereotype.
In landmark books, articles, and exhibitions, and in breathtaking lectures at Yale University and around the world, Thompson has consistently called for art history to examine and step beyond its self-referential confines, even beyond the limits of visuality. He enjoins us to listen, at long last, to the voices of black creators and thinkers, to understand their works as they describe them, as they move with them and are moved by them. “Black Gods and Kings,” Thompson's 1971 exhibition of Yoruba art and aesthetics at UCLA, directly confronted a prevailing paradigm in African cultural studies, which for years had figured African creativity as unthinking adherence to “tradition” and formal repetition: changeless, timeless, bound to place, primitive. Thompson dashed those preconceptions by highlighting black cultural innovation as polyphony—a refractive range of individual conversations rooted in, inspired by, and departing from practices of the past. Likewise, Thompsons 1981 National Gallery of Art exhibition, “The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds,” celebrated the visual culture of the Kongo peoples of Central Africa. Long dismissed as mere “fetishism” submerged at the heart of the “Dark Continent,” Kongo culture unfolded in Thompsons study as a realm of classical radiance, an exalted, living source for a spectrum of black cultural practices in Africa and across the ocean, in the Americas and the Caribbean.
From his earliest inquiries into a pan-African “aesthetic of the cool,” to his monumental Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas, to his explorations of the blackness of Argentinian tango, Thompson has traced the cultural history of an Africa that traverses and overflows geographical limits. This is the “Black Atlantic,” a term Thompson coined, now in common parlance among cultural historians. It is a liquid space of imaginative recollection rendered as the sounds, gestures, words, and forms that mark the flows and breaks of historical memory and spiritual longing. At its core is the once radical idea that Black Atlantic artworks are, above all, philosophical objects in critical motion.
Thompsons work is a powerful critique of the staid objectivist methodologies of academic social science and of the Eurocentrism it represents. His research, writing, and teaching are infused with a passion and lyrical grace that reflect the ambitions and humanity of the black men and women who are his closest collaborators. In Thompson's reception-based methodology, creative, critical thinking in the Black Atlantic is not just the purview of a select canon of artists or ritual specialists—neither, to be sure, is it the exclusive domain of Western art historians. It is vernacular stuff; it belongs to everybody. Thompson unearths hidden histories by honoring the living actors who render ordinary experience into mythic gesture. In their dauntless vitality, and in the challenge of their works, we students—and by “students,” I mean all of us—might see a glint of ourselves at our best: driven by the contingencies of the present, emboldened by jeweled fragments of the past, and graced by an unfinished, unquenchable yearning for excellence, for transcendence, for freedom. In Thompsons translations of black creativity—he once described himself to me as “a conduit, a translator”—we feel what it's like to give ourselves over to something or someone other than ourselves, to embrace those worlds of understanding as we might our own, to commit ourselves to learning, to caring, to working, to fighting …
And above all, to loving. Because love, indeed, is the synthesizing engine of Robert Farris Thompson's life's work as researcher, writer, lecturer, curator, musician, professor, mentor, conduit, translator, and everything else he's been so far. It is a boundless, lifelong love, an absolute commitment to the innumerable ways in which blackness continues to transform the world. Less adventurous academicians, of course, might be tempted to discount the value of such love as a methodological tool. But really, there can be no other explanation for the sheer, convincing power of it all. Were it otherwise, we'd all be the poorer.
No wonder, then, that what has come to be known as Thompson's signature book, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, has remained in print ever since its publication in 1983. It speaks to people. Like all his work, Flash of the Spirit is a mambo, a public conversation that inspires and challenges within and without the halls of the academy. In 2003, the College Art Association honored Thompson with its inaugural award for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement for Art Writing, calling him a “towering figure in the history of art, whose voice for diversity and cultural openness has made him a public intellectual of resounding importance.” As he prepares to publish his next book, Staccato Incandescence: Mambo in Art History, Robert Farris Thompson continues to be a singular model of brave, committed scholarship, a leader who is always a step or two ahead of the rest of us. And more than that: He is one cool creature, an unrepeatable phenomenon.
SOMETHING TO RFT (A PERSONAL POSTSCRIPT)
Bàbá, studying with you at Yale, and knowing you since, has been one of the great blessings and honors of my life. From you I've received a thousand gifts, including one that surpasses all: freedom. With a Yoruba adage (“Tibi tire lá da ilé ayé”) and an American injunction (“Be there, listen, take notes, and tell the truth”), you challenged me as a student with the freedom to tell true stories about unexpected objects and the extraordinary people who experience and think about them. Such stories and objects might not fall in line with received or canonical ideas— even those you yourself had established—but they are nonetheless true, and need to be told responsibly, responsively. Thank you, Bàbá, not only for your faith in my work; but for your fearless embrace of critical difference as the driving engine of newness, growth and transformation in your own work, in the history of the arts, and in the world at large. E séun gaan, Bàbá mi òwòn, Bàbá mi dáadáa, Bàbá mi titi láíláí.
Mister R.F.T. (12/30/1932 -)
Wande Abimbola, “Làgbàyí: The Itinerant Wood Carver of Ọ̀jọwọ́n,” in The Yoruba Artist, ed. Rowland Abiodun, Henry Drewal, and John Pemberton III (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).