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Transcript of Faris Thompson
Interview with Robert Farris Thompson Author(s): Donald J. Cosentino and Robert Farris Thompson Reviewed work(s): Source: African Arts, Vol. 25, No. 4, 100th Issue (Oct., 1992), pp. 52-63 Published by: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3336967 . Accessed: 20/02/2012 15:19Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact email@example.com.
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ROBERT FARRISDONALDJ. COSENTINOArt FarrisThompson Professor Africanand Afro-American Historyand Masterof is of He in at Robert DwightCollege YaleUniversity. has donefieldresearch a dauntingnumber of Timothy and cultures. publications exhibitions this and His reflect diversity, beingcirAfrican New World African reverberationsmambo. books include BlackGods cumscribed by theeverexpanding Thompson's of onlyand Kings (1971), African Art in Motion (1974), The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds (1981), and Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (1983). through the folk models. One of the rules is that before we construct our own model we build on the folk model. And the folk model already glosses core Afro-Atlantic religious art as ecstatic. Afro-Atlantic material demands-how shall I phrase it-"like" is too pallid a verbbeing conmoved.As you cross the cosmogram in Central African religion, you cross it with ecstasy. When an ibejiimage is brought before me to discuss (Fig. 2), it can be seen through my body language how much the ritual means to me. I should think that would make the mother know that her child is appreciated (Fig. 3). And which mother wants her child analyzed in a crudely objective way? On the other hand, there is a danger here: if you are seen to be perennially enthusiastic, you are devaluing yourself in terms of old-fashioned Germanic modes of what is scholarship. You are subtracting from the seriousness. But I don't believe that scholarship is a zero-sum game. I think the more ecstatic you are, the more committed you are to being serious. You crisscross play and work as you try in all humility to arrive at the democratic facts. By the "democratic facts" I mean not as one Mukongo thinks, but hopefully as many Bakongo think. And then I can release myself. It has to be an earnedecstasy, is what I'm trying to say. So this is what the neo-puritans who might be a little put off at the ecstatic level in African-American scholarship cannot understand: that it is an earned ecstasy. That just as you can't do fieldwork until you speak the language, so you cannot be casse until you have something to be broken. This traversing of the Atlantic-you've done it, a lot of people have done it-but the more you crisscross, the more integument you meet, the more resistance, the tougher you become. It gives you more and more right to get happy.
Atlantic andAltars" called"Black Art on He is presently (TheCenter African for working an exhibition Arts and Sacred of Vodou" and as (UCLA). Art,New York) serving a consultant writer "The for October 1991 21, Wearesittingat a tablein theMaster's studyof The Timothy DwightCollege. study,likethe colin lege,is builtand appointed the New England into Georgian style.On thedoorleading thestudy Muhammed Ali. is a life-size poster theboxer ofI was going to begin this interview in a square diachronic way, asking you about your past and all that. But now that I'm here, I'm not going to do that. Let's make this more of a Rorschach. To me the name "Bob Thompson," aside from a considerable bibliography, suggests an attitude of "enjoyment" in scholarship. I mean the enjoyment I feel in reading your work, but more significantly, the enjoyment that you seem to feel in working with African cultures. To what extent does my reaction reflect your experience? To what extent has the enjoyment of African cultures motivated your work? And to what extent do you think that such pleasure is a necessary motivation for doing fieldwork in Africa and the Diaspora?-I-
gions is spirit possession (Fig. 5). And one of the ways of glossing possession is ecstasy. Therefore, if ecstasy is a formal goal of those religions, when all enthusiasms seemingly converge and-casse-you are broken by pleasure in a strange kind of transcendental pain, and pushed to the level of the Iwa, or orisha,or minkisi-if that's the goal, then how dare one even consider studying these cultures without a modicum of enthusiasm. If possession's the goal, then it cuts in space a key that enthusiasm will fit. I find that when I do fieldwork, the fact that I am unashamedly enthusiastic facilitates the research process.
capital mal goals of West and Central African relioo d1. MAMBAMAMBO BY ALISON SAAR. UNITEDSTATES, 1985. BEADS, SEQUINS, EMBROIDERY, FABRIC;51cm x 46cm. PRIVATE COLLECTION.
Well, capsule question,one RFT the that is aissues. One of the forof
search in Africa from parallel research in China or Europe? Someone once said to me that he didn't understand why it was expected that people who did research in Africa would be advocates for Africa, since it wasn't understood that if you did Chinese studies you actually had to like China, or if you did European studies you actually had to like France or Germany. He was criticizing the expectation that the Africanist researcher would be personally or emotionally engaged in African or Black Atlantic cultures.
Does attitude differentiate field re-
tous-the idea of "being expected to like," rather than, through hard work and contacts with these cultures, finding yourself pushed to an ecstatic level, which can be a very serious thing. Because again, I only work
That phrasing seemsto be infelici-
self and get back into the square part of this interview. I want to go back to the beginning and ask how you got set off on the Black Atlantic voyage. What were the original impulses? Let me string some things together for
Let EnoughRorschach. me reversemy-
TOP:2. TWINFIGURES (IBEJI)IN THE UCLA FOWLER MUSEUMOF CULTURALHISTORY. FROMTHOMPSON'S BLACKGODS AND KINGS (1971: OPP. CH. 13/1). BOTTOM:3. FRAMEFROMTHOMPSON'S FILM OF YORUBA MOTHERSDANCING WITHIBEJI. AJILETE,EGBADO, NIGERIA; AUGUST 1964. FROM BLACKGODS AND KINGS (1971: CH. 13, FIG. 12).
some crystal sconces that were dangling under candles on a mantle. The Anglo-Saxons I played football with either said nothing or "Oh, that's kinda pretty." The one African American stared at the crystals and said, "That's heaven-like!" [snaps fingers]. He was culturally prepared to start talking immediately about crystals, quartz, and glitter in correspondence with spirit, the most perfect gift from above. That haunted me. Heaven-like. When the world, in David Hammons's phrasing, becomes a chandelier.DC
Did you remember that comment after you went to reflecting cultures?
Yes. The deep in RFT mind, comment floatedOnly this never forgotten. myPHOTO: LARRY DUPONT. COURTESY OF THE UCLA FOWLER MUSEUM OF CULTURALHISTORY
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PHOTO:COURTESY OF THE UCLA FOWLER MUSEUM OF CULTURALHISTORY
you: Were there things in your personal life that started you off on the study of Black Atlantic cultures? Were there early culture heroes? Okay, I can answer that. It was not one thing, however; it was a combination of the following. Number one, in the '40s when I was a kid in grammar school-Dudley School in El Paso-the boogie-woogie period was in full swing. So I sat down at the piano and tried to piece it together from a guy named Lloyd Stevens who was one of my earliest mentors because he played piano blues flawlessly. Then
there was this African American I met by the name of Jessy Brown who sang blues field hollers. Later, I was on the piano, playing boogie-woogie, and I looked around and there were people around me. So I got the picture: boogie instantly generates people. Black music communalizes. That was lesson one. Lesson two: I saw at an early age that the African Americans had a different spiritual vision. I could sense it. And in a way, what I've done since explains these early influences to myself. Once I came into a living room of a family that was very proud of
weekend in New York I saw a Kongo-Cuban altar: a huge glittering piece of quartz to the right, and an Elegba image on the left. And then this huge leopard pelt rising. This is a New York black altar, but that piece of quartz is there because ancient Bakongo equally deemed this wondrous stone a medium of transcendence and protection. People will say: "Aw, come on. Is a Polish factory worker in Detroit going to remember Polish religious stuff? And even if he did remember his folklore, how do we know that this person in El Paso remembered his?" But then, if you are into folklore you know that indeed certainly not all Polish Americans have Polish altars, but there will be, somewhere, one or two selfappointed or spiritually called custodians of the tradition. We are not talking about every single person. We are talking about seers and visionaries, who react to crystal and to light in ways that Lonnie Holley, James Hampton,