Historian Robert Farris Thompson, who dedicated his life to the study and celebration of art and music of the Black Atlantic, has died at 88. Thompson joined the faculty at Yale University in 1965, only the second professor of African art history in the country. He worked for more than half a century at Yale, building a body of work that explored different subjects with sensitivity and reverence. He dismantled the idea that art, anthropology, music, and sociology were disparate fields by showing instead how they are all indispensably interconnected.
“We mourn the loss of one of the giants of our field, an inspiring teacher, and a transformative figure who altered our understanding of the nature of African art, Afro-Atlantic art, and art history more broadly,” Milette Gaifman, chair of Yale’s art history department, told ARTnews after Thompson’s passing.
Thompson was born in 1932 in El Paso, Texas. His father was a surgeon, and his mother, a local arts patron, gave him his first lessons in art history. On a trip to Mexico during his senior year of prep school, he first heard mambo, a propulsive fusion of swing, jazz, and Cuban ballroom music. He later recalled immediately getting “hopelessly hooked on mambo.”
After high school, Thompson enrolled at Yale, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1955. Following a two-year stint in the Army, during which he toured as a drummer with the “All Army Talent Show,” Thompson released Safari of One, an Afro-Cuban Percussion Album. In 1959, he returned to Yale to pursue a doctorate in art history, which he was awarded in 1965.
Beginning with a Ford Foundation fellowship to travel to Nigeria for fieldwork, Thompson made at least 14 trips to the African continent and traveled widely throughout South America in the service of what he called “guerrilla scholarship.” He spoke fluent Ki-Kongo, Yoruba, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, and several variants of Creole.
Thompson authored several books, including the Black Gods and Kings, a close study of the art history of the Yoruba people of Nigeria in 1971; Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music in 2011; and Flash of the Spirit, a dive into African influence in the New World praised upon its publication in 1983 for doing for “art history what the dunk shot did for basketball.” He was also working on a comprehensive history of mambo.
Thompson’s exploits sometimes seemed as if they were conjured by Hollywood. He was subjected to a busted car engine with a Yoruba high priest in the passenger seat; watched hundreds of candles doused by ocean waves in what used to be Zaire; and was an “honorary member of the Basinjon Society, a Cameroun tribal agency for controlling lightning and other natural forces,” according to a 1984 Rolling Stone profile.
But Thompson considered himself foremost a respectful observer and relished in disposing with racist notions of “primitivism.” As he said in the story in Rolling Stone, “Those people stand like giants in teaching us how to live. There is a moral voice imbedded 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.”
He continued: “These are the canons of the cool: 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.”