Robert Farris Thompson, “Guerilla Scholar” of African art, dies at the age of 88
He spoke and wrote of African civilizations as infinitely different ethical, philosophical, and aesthetic systems. In order to grasp their complexity and sophistication, a “guerrilla grant” is required, which combines art history, anthropology, dance history, religious studies, sociology and ethnomusicology. This hybrid practice has taken him time and again from the academic ivory tower to rural Africa, to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and to hip-hop clubs in the Bronx. In all these surroundings he was equally and exultantly at home.
He was born in El Paso on December 30, 1932. His father, Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, was a surgeon; his mother, Virginia (Hood) Thompson, was a local patron of the arts. Professor Thompson later recalled that he first heard mambo music on a family trip to Mexico City in 1950, during his senior year of high school, and that the experience immediately sparked his passion for African culture, and especially him drew attention in the form of popular music, this culture was all around him.
“Mambo,” he said in a 1992 interview with art historian Donald J. Cosentino in African Arts magazine, “has become my dominant obsession.”
After graduating from Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, he went to Yale, where he took various humanities courses and practiced drums, with the idea of starting a jazz career. During a two-year stay in the army, he gained recognition as a drummer in an army talent show; In 1959 he released an Afro-Cuban style percussion album, “Safari of One”.
He took a law degree but dropped out after a year and went back to Yale to study art history. There he studied with George Kubler, a historian of pre-Columbian Mexican and Aztec art, who approached his subject with the undisputed respect that was accorded European art at the time in the academic world.