PRINT February 2013


Robert Farris Thompson

Mambo dancers, Palladium Ballroom, New York, December 1, 1954. Photo: Yale Joel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Robert Farris Thompson is one of the founding scholars of contemporary Afro-Atlantic and African studies. His landmark writings on topics such as Afro-Cuban dance and Yoruba sculpture posed a newly systematic understanding of cultural forms and meanings not merely as points on a historical continuum but as dynamics of transmission, movement, and change. These groundbreaking texts, composed between the 1950s and the present, were gathered for the first time in his 2011 volume Aesthetic of the Cool. Here, Thompson is joined by Kellie Jones, whose own collected writings, EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art, were published the same year, and who recently curated the seminal exhibition “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980,” currently on view at MoMA PS 1 in New York. Together they engage in a striking dialogue about their lifelong study of art, language, and politics.

KELLIE JONES: You’ve said that El Paso—your hometown—is the place that prepared you for all your aesthetic inquiry.

ROBERT FARRIS THOMPSON: El Paso was a trans­national city before anyone thought about that. I went to school with an African American Mexican Jewish guy, Anglos, Greek women. I was able to mix it up with kids who taught me boogie-woogie on the piano and train-whistle blues.

KJ: Then, at Yale, you found your way to a class taught by the preeminent pre-Columbianist George Kubler. From all this, it seems as if you would have ended up concentrating on the ancient Americas or the modern art of Latin America. Instead, you pioneered the study of African art in missives such as “An Aesthetic of the Cool” [1966], Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba Art at UCLA [1971], African Art in Motion: Icon and Act [1974]. How did that happen?

RFT: When I went to Yale, I found out about the Palladium [Ballroom in New York] and I practically lived there. The great goddess at the club was Graciela—Felipa “Graciela” Pérez Gutiérrez, who sang with the Machito Orchestra, which pioneered Afro-Cuban jazz. She used to add energy to her songs with an idiophone ultimately from Kongo, biri bi kumbi, kumbi-kumbi, biri bi kumbi. With Afro-Cuban jazz, you have this highly transnational course of black culture that comes from Cuba to Harlem.

KJ: But then there was Kubler, too.

RFT: Kubler was the only colleague I had who loved graffiti. I showed him the way the form advanced from scrawls and tags and toys, as they were called, to “wild style.” He could see that it was art—no nonsense, just “Yes, this is another field we can add.” The course that Kubler taught was the only so-called non-Western—I hate that term—course.

But meanwhile I was reading [W. E. B.] DuBois. I was reading [Melville] Herskovits. Kubler wanted me to study Peruvian antiquity, so I did. But then I realized, “Wait a minute. I’m studying mambo. I’m studying Yoruba. I’m studying Kongo.” So I went into a phone booth and called him and said, “I’m living a lie. I’ve got to study Africa.” He said, “Well, you’ll be wandering in a desert.” I said, “Yeah, but I know where the oases are.” KJ: A close reading of language is integral to your method—you’ve dedicated so much of your study to the etymologies and structures of myriad African languages. Can you talk about your linguistic turn, your semiotic imagination?

RFT: Well, unless you study African languages as seriously as possible, you’re going to miss something. When I worked with the Yoruba, they used a plural to show respect. They would say, “Wo·n do this” and “Wo·n do that.” Wo·n is plural, meaning “they.” Then it suddenly hit me: Y’all could also be seen as a plural showing respect. That’s one of the mysteries of the South. Why do you say “y’all” to one person? It seems to me that one possible explanation is it’s an upsurge of the plural of respect in African American English, which everyone now uses.

KJ: You were also one of the first people to use structural linguistics and ethnographic theories of language in order to study the African diaspora.

RFT: [Claude] Lévi-Strauss’s Savage Mind was my first touchstone, because there are so many insights about learning to respect traditional culture and what is invisible in mainstream culture. You know, little things like the way the Osage and the Omaha were able to prognosticate when spring was coming by the state of the development of the fetus from a female bison killed just for that purpose. The sophistication of reading nature. Structuralism allowed you to see these innovations.

KJ: It seems like you’re far more interested in diachronic change or transformation than in sticking to one constant, stable system that explains or governs a given culture.

RFT: Well, so much of black art demands that you hang out. [laughter]

KJ: Think about David Hammons. Talk about hanging out. You better hang out for a long time.

RFT: If you hang out, you can also, if I dare say so, respect lived experience as something equal to theory. You can learn a great deal just by listening to someone like Gil Lopez. He can play the signature riffs of every mambo musician that ever was. Suddenly you realize that this is not folk music. This is not subculture.

KJ: That understanding of change goes back to Kubler, who was not only an incredible historian but also a theorist who argued that certain forms or gestures are transmitted over time, or “drift,” during which there might be radical transformations in the meaning of those gestures or forms.

RFT: Yes: One thing that Kubler demanded was seriation. It’s a method of relative dating: Artifacts can be sequenced according to design or typology. Unless there is a chronology, what have you got? Well, that’s an open, damn good question. That’s why when I teach cool, I try to remind people it’s not just a concept from the past fifty or sixty years. The fact is that we can seriate it starting in the 1300s, with the king of Benin, who brought peace after war. They crowned him Ewuare: “You have brought the cool.” In 1900, there was a black baseball star, an extraordinary figure who was not afraid to play in front of major-league audiences. They called him Cool Bell. But that wasn’t enough, because he was a papa—so they called him Cool Papa Bell.

Cool has other rubrics, other aesthetics, too. One is a standard Niger/Congo idiom for self-control: “Cool your heart.” Tutu okan è· in Yoruba, but the Bas-Kongo phrase it an entirely different way. They say, “Kana uzona nkembo, mbundo saula”: “If you want glory, despise your heart.” That’s another way of phrasing it. You say: “Heart, shut up.” That’s how you achieve grace under pressure.

KJ: So it could be very antagonistic, in a way. Cool as fearlessness, as self-control.

RFT: You show how different forms and conventions shift, too, in “Now Dig This!”—from assemblage to printmaking to photography, as practiced by African American artists over two decades in LA. . . . If you could open up that structure historically and geographically, who else might you include?

KJ: Well, I would put Edmonia Lewis in there. Henry Tanner. Aaron Douglas.

RFT: Oh, stop right there. Aaron Douglas is my god, because just as hip-hoppers use digital stuff left and right, he used radio. You know, the RKO symbol of the radio, the tower, with the messages emitting in ever-increasing circles of vibration.

KJ: Romare Bearden. David Hammons. Pearl Primus. Janet Collins, the ballerina—her biography just came out. Katherine Dunham. I have been fixated on dance, especially the development of modern dance in the ’30s and its relationship to African American artists: and not only the story of the dancers but figures like the sculptor Augusta Savage, who was involved with the Garvey movement and was an early supporter of black modern dance.

RFT: How about Elizabeth Catlett?

KJ: Oh yes. She had a master’s degree by 1940. An African American woman artist had a master’s degree by 1940. And then she went on to be the chair of the art department at Dillard University, in New Orleans. Can you imagine? You’re there. You can’t take your students to the museum. They had to have special days in order to take the students to the museum to see work because black people were not allowed in the museum. So how do you teach art history?

RFT: That’s interesting. One of the first things [Jean-Michel] Basquiat did when he got to New York was get a museum card, and he could go wherever he wanted to.

KJ: Another interesting thing about Basquiat: Those paintings, I think, are still as coded as anything else. Those works are full of information that we really still haven’t unpacked. We need new ways of trying to understand such things.

RFT: EyeMinded poses some new ways—it’s an unorthodox book. You include interviews and narrative, as well as more straightforward analytic or art-historical texts.

KJ: I thought of having this dialogue about art with some members of my family. I could have had more, because there are so many people in my family who write or are journalists, whether in print, radio, or television. But I went with four sections and four people: my dad, Amiri Baraka, and my mom, Hettie Jones, both poets; my sister, Lisa Jones, a filmmaker and a journalist; and then my husband, Guthrie Ramsey Jr., a musicologist. I gave each of them a section of the book, paired with a piece of work by them that I love, and then asked them to respond. So each created an introduction to their particular segment, an answer to one of my pairings. These are both direct and indirect conversations, reflecting the circulation of ideas, the intersection of voices, as well as the outlines and reaches of each of our individual concerns. The structure of the book really illuminates and honors the familial dialogues that have shaped my creative output as a writer and curator.

And I think anytime you do something like that that is going against the grain, it’s inherently political.

RFT: When we practice African, African American, or Afro-Atlantic art history, it’s automatically political because it’s running up against a thousand vestiges of white supremacy, whether people want to confront that or not. But on the other hand, the political has changed, it means so many things, and there are different senses of responsibility today.

KJ: In that sense, both of our projects are really connected to the countercultural period in America in the ’60s and its aftermath, a moment when certain modes of political engagement either dissipated or had to be fundamentally rethought.

RFT: That’s one of my favorite things that comes out of—if I dare to call him that because he is that to me—Saint Hammons. I once heard a marvelous anecdote about him: There was a painter who was going on and on about the textures and lines in his work. Finally, David looked at him and said, “I don’t care where you were trained. I want to know what you have to say.” That’s a laser, man. If we aim that laser at ourselves, we cut off the fat. And you know, that reminds me of one of the most moving accounts of black influence on world culture, the end of Sartre’s La Nausée, when he speaks of the strength of a woman singing the blues. You could argue that existentialism was sparked in part by blackness.

KJ: Well, that whole ’50s moment—from Ginsberg to Rauschenberg—what are they listening to? They’re listening to the music. It’s not surprising that that period had that kind of blackness as its—I don’t want to say subculture; perhaps wellspring—but it was there and it was sending messages to people that changed the world, as well as individual actions, like the bus boycott or the integration of southern schools, the beginnings of the civil rights movement.

This is what I hoped “Now Dig This!” might help chronicle: a similar crucible of interchange, the new strength of African American artistic communities and practices in LA in the ’60s and ’70s, part of the increasing radical activism in ethnic communities and in the feminist, youth, and antiwar movements throughout the US and all over the world. That scene was also linked to changing demographics as growing numbers of black citizens migrated to California, creating new majorities in places like LA. Fleeing old lives, they laid fresh claims to the possibilities of democratic change and social freedoms.

RFT: The old ideas about lines of influence or derivation do not apply.

KJ: These artists knew their peers in contemporary art, and they knew traditional art history, of course, but in that climate, African art, vernacular practices, and the energy of the streets, from civil rights protests to Black Panther programs, were even more inspiring. Hammons’s use of body prints is not an accident: That process reveals the impact of African American people and culture on the US, in what Leigh Raiford has framed as an “insurgent visibility.” Noah Purifoy’s taking remains of the Watts Rebellion and redeploying them as assemblage is real genius. It makes a claim for a different kind of representational strategy, a nonobjective one, and a different kind of subject.

RFT: Like Norman Lewis, who had the guts to take on abstraction when you’re supposed to be a social realist. But we’re finally getting to know who he was.

KJ: Exactly. I think Purifoy really continues Lewis’s insistence on being able to represent oneself as a creative person (and as an African American) in any way one wants; it’s an insurgent visuality, if you will.