Robert Farris Thompson, ‘Guerrilla Scholar’ of African Art, Dies at 88
Robert Farris Thompson, a self-described “guerrilla scholar” who revolutionized the study of the cultures of Africa and the Americas by tracing, through art, music and dance, myriad continuities between the two, died on Nov. 29 at a nursing home in New Haven, Conn. He was 88.
The cause was Parkinson’s disease complicated by Covid-19, his daughter, Alicia Thompson Churchill, said.
Born into an upper-middle-class white family in Texas and educated at Yale, Professor Thompson is remembered by colleagues and students for his energizing thinking and his extravagantly performative presence.
In the Yale classroom, where he taught African American studies for more than half a century, he turned lecterns into percussive instruments. On research trips in Brazil, Cuba and Nigeria, he was known to exchange his J. Press madras shorts for the robes of an initiate into tribal religious societies.
He spoke and wrote of African civilizations as infinitely varied ethical, philosophical and aesthetic systems. To grasp their complexity and sophistication, he said, required a “guerrilla scholarship” that combined art history, anthropology, dance history, religious studies, sociology and ethnomusicology. This hybrid practice repeatedly took him out of the academic ivory tower and into rural Africa, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and hip-hop clubs in the Bronx. In all these environments, he was equally, and exultantly, at home.
He was born on Dec. 30, 1932, in El Paso. His father, Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, was a surgeon; his mother, Virginia (Hood) Thompson, was a local arts patron. Professor Thompson later remembered that on a family trip to Mexico City in 1950, during his final year of high school, he heard mambo music for the first time, and that this experience instantly sparked his passion for African culture and let him know that, particularly in the form of popular music, that culture was everywhere around him.
“Mambo,” he said in a 1992 interview with the art historian Donald J. Cosentino that appeared in the journal African Arts, “became my ruling obsession.”
After graduation from Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, he entered Yale, where he took a variety of humanities courses and practiced drumming, with thoughts of pursuing a jazz career. During a two-year Army stint, he won acclaim as a drummer in an Army talent show; in 1959 he released an Afro-Cuban-style percussion album, “Safari of One.”
He took a stab at law school, but he dropped out after a year and went back to Yale to do graduate work in art history. There he studied with George Kubler, a historian of pre-Columbian Mexican and Aztec art, who approached his subject with the kind of unquestioned respect that at the time was customarily awarded in academia to European art.
For the young scholar, Professor Kubler’s approach validated his own already high regard for the arts of Africa and its diaspora. Professor Thompson’s subsequent career would constitute a long, rigorously argued campaign of advocacy for the global civilization he called the Black Atlantic, a name he coined.
It was an argument rarely made at a time when African art was often filed under “primitive” and relegated to ethnology collections. Professor Thompson’s 1965 Yale Ph.D. in African art was only the second one ever awarded by an American university. (The first went to Roy Sieber at the University of Iowa in 1956.)
Yale remained Professor Thompson’s academic base. He was professor of African American studies and Col. John Trumbull professor of the history of art. He also served for 32 years as master of Timothy Dwight College. (Generations of students called him “Master T.”)
At the same time, he was relentlessly peripatetic. Beginning with a Ford Foundation fellowship that took him to Nigeria to research Yoruba art in the 1960s, he made field trips across Africa, South America, the Caribbean and the United States. Over the years, he visited almost every African nation. He was fluent not only in French, Spanish and Portuguese but also in Ki-Kongo, Yoruba and a variety of Creole and tribal languages.
In addition to being a hugely popular teacher, he was a prolific and influential writer, appearing in popular art and music magazines as well as academic journals.
In a 1966 article, “An Aesthetic of the Cool: West African Dance,” Professor Thompson set out what he considered a basic distinguishing element of Afro-Atlantic art and culture: cool, as a descriptor of ethics, attitude and style.
“These are the canons of the cool,” he told Frederick Iseman, one of his former students, in a 1984 Rolling Stone interview. “There is no crisis that cannot be weighed and solved; nothing can be achieved through hysteria or cowardice; you must wear and show off your ability to achieve social reconciliation. Step back from the nightmare. It is a call for parlance, for congress and for self-confidence.”
In African art and aesthetics, he said, “balance is the name of God.”
His book “Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy” (1984) was widely read in the art world and beyond. Its analysis of how African civilizations were essential to the shaping of art, dance and music in the Americas arrived at a high moment of multiculturalist consciousness and in the midst of the growing hip-hop scene; Professor Thompson would later write about contemporary artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hammons, Keith Haring and Betye Saar.
He also did influential work as a curator. Two exhibitions he organized for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, “African Art in Motion” in 1974 and “The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds” in 1981, emphatically lifted African material out of an ethnographic niche and into a fine-art context.
The exhibition “Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas,” which he presented, working with C. Daniel Dawson, at the Museum of African Art in New York in 1993, changed the very idea of what a museum exhibition could be.
That show was made up of two dozen altars from various centers of Afro-Atlantic worship. Some were historical objects. Others were created for the show by Afro-Caribbean ritual practitioners and consecrated on site. And still others were recreations of untransportable altars — like the sand altars to the goddess of the sea on beaches at Rio de Janeiro — reconstructed as dioramas by the museum’s design team.
The show did not just erase the distinction between “fine art” and “ethnology”; it also blurred distinctions between “traditional” and “contemporary” art. And it posed resonant and complicated questions about how to present the sacred art of all cultures in secular spaces like Western museums.
What really set it apart, though, was the audience it brought in. People who had never been to a museum came because they heard about the “live” altars. Devotees of Afro-Caribbean Santeria and Afro-Brazilian Candomblé left coins and offered prayers and songs, in a kind of personal engagement rarely heard of — or permitted — in New York art museums.
Other exhibitions and books followed. “Tango: The Art History of Love” appeared in 2005, and a collection of essays and interviews, “Aesthetics of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music,” in 2011. A completed full-length study of the mambo — a book Professor Thompson said he had been “eternally writing” — awaits publicationHe was aware that his brand of advocacy scholarship, the scholarship of someone who deeply believed in the power of belief, was rejected by some academics (“fud-duds,” he called them) for whom scientific-style objectivity was the only valid approach to cultural history. His response: “Love, and also religious passion as an aspect of love, far from destroying objectivity, can push us to an objectivity beyond all academic understanding.”
In 2003, the College Art Association, the foundational organization in the United States for professionals in the visual arts, chose him as the recipient of its inaugural Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art. The association called 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.”
In addition to his daughter, Professor Thompson is survived by a son, Clark; four grandchildren; a great-granddaughter; and a sister, Virginia Schoellkopf. His marriage to Nancy (Gaylord) Thompson ended in divorce.
Professor Thompson’s energy stayed strong to the end. He taught well into his 80s, and in 2018 he was researching Afro-Atlantic influences in Peru.
“I’m supposed to be a ‘senior scholar,’” he told Mr. Cosentino. “Hell, I haven’t even begun. All my words are prologue, mere preparation.”