Robert Farris Thompson (1932–2021)

November 30, 2021

Art historian Robert Farris Thompson, renowned for his extensive and luminous writing on the art of Africa and the Afro-Atlantic and for his lively lecturing on the topic, died November 28 at the age of eighty-eight. The news was confirmed by his daughter, Alicia Thompson Churchill. Thompson, who minted the term “Black Atlantic,” devoted his life to the study of African art history, of which he was one of the world’s foremost scholars. His pathbreaking book Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, an investigation of the trajectory of the visual arts and philosophies of a distinct set of ancient African cultures, has remained in print since first being published in 1983. Additionally an authority on hip-hop and African dance, he was at his death professor emeritus in the history of art and African American studies at Yale, where he was one of the school’s longest-serving professors, having taught there since 1965 and served as master of its Timothy Dwight College for more than thirty years.

Thompson was born in 1932 in El Paso, Texas, to a physician father and a mother active in the local arts community. Introduced to mambo on a Mexico City vacation with his parents while still a teen, he earned his BA from Yale in 1955; three years later, while studying for his master’s at that institution and following a stint in the army, during which time he toured as a drummer with the All Army Talent Show, he published his first article on African-Cuban dance and music, launching a career that would see him move for a period to the Yoruba region of southwestern Nigeria. Thompson traveled from village to village in an attempt to comprehend the art history of the forty million inhabitants of the area. The result was his pathbreaking Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba Art at UCLA (1971), published six years after he obtained his Ph.D. in art history from Yale and began teaching there. Besides Flash of the Spirit, his published volumes include The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds (1981) and Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas (1993), which was accompanied by an exhibition at New York’s Museum for African Art. His last book was 2011’s Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music. In addition to writing widely for publications such as Artforum and Rolling Stone, Thompson oversaw exhibitions of African art, including those at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Deeply interested in the dance, movement, and music of Africa as well as its art, Thompson visited nearly all of the landmass’s forty-seven countries, intent on studying and understanding all these forms in context, as they originated among the continent’s many peoples. He forcefully rejected the notion of assessing Black culture within a white Western framework and argued for the “Black Atlantic” as a distinct culture arising in the era of slave trade and representing a fusion of African culture with those bordering the Atlantic. The concept would come to be the subject of a 1993 vanguard book of that title by cultural critic Paul Gilroy. Thompson also examined the impact of African art on American culture, where it has informed fields ranging from design to philosophy to language. “We can’t know how American we are unless we know how Black we are,” Thompson was quoted as saying in a 2010 issue of Yale Alumni Magazine.

His efforts in regard to African dance earned him an Outstanding Contribution to Dance Research award from the Congress on Research in Dance. He was the recipient of the College Art Association’s inaugural Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Art Writing in 2003 and named that organization’s distinguished scholar in 2015. Yale, where he was affectionately known as the “professor of mambo,” earlier this year awarded him a fourth degree, naming him an honorary doctor of humanities. Despite his many academic achievements, Thompson, who spoke multiple languages including Portuguese, Ki-Kongo, Yuba, and Creole, and who was a respecter of all regardless of social or economic status, was perhaps most rewarded by his habit of pleasantly surprising cab drivers by greeting them in their native languages. “You only live once,” he told his students. “Enjoy the feast of life. Treasure it. Be worthy of it.”