Yale University to Honor Art Historian Robert F. Thompson

The Chubb Fellowship at Yale University and the Departments of History of Art and African American Studies will host a symposium, “Flash of a Spirit,” celebrating the work of Yale Professor Robert Farris Thompson, on September 12, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

The Chubb Fellowship at Yale University and the Departments of History of Art and African American Studies will host a symposium, “Flash of a Spirit,” celebrating the work of Yale Professor Robert Farris Thompson, on September 12, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

The symposium will be held in the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Lecture Hall of the Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street. The gallery is providing additional support for the event. The symposium is free and open to the public.

Thompson is the Colonel John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art, professor of African American studies and master of Timothy Dwight College. A long-time Yale faculty member, he will deliver the keynote address, “Communiqué from Afro-Atlantis,” at 3:45 p.m.

In keeping with Thompson’s interest in the art and music of Africa and the African-Atlantic diaspora, the symposium will feature both scholarly talks and musical performances. Featured speakers will be Rowland Abiodun, the John C. Newton Professor of the History of Art and Black Studies at Amherst College, on “Confronting Intellectual Pidgin in African Aesthetics”; David T. Doris, associate professor at the University of Michigan, on “The Mid-Point, the End-Point: Aesthetics as Moral Performance”; Patrick McNaughton, the Chancellor’s Professor at Indiana University, on “What Sidi Ballo Brought to Bird Dancing: Or, Why Care About Individuals”; Kellie Jones, associate professor at Columbia University, on “Robert Farris Thompson’s Diaspora: A Family Affair”; Grey Gundaker, professor at the College of William and Mary, on “When the Black Atlantic Rolls Over You: A Year at Yale”; Richard J. Powell, the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University, on “‘Activating Heaven,’ Painting in Babylon: Ras Ishi Butcher”; and Marta Moreno Vega, president of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, on “Que Rico Mambo! Que Rico Thompson!”

Music will be performed by Oriki Omi Oddara, Sonic Serendipity (featuring Greg Tate, Justice Dilla X and André Lassalle) and Alma Moyo.

Born and raised in El Paso, Texas, Thompson has devoted much of his life to a study of the musical and cultural complexity of mambo, which he discovered on spring break as a high school student in 1950 in La Ciudad de México. In the course of his career, he has revolutionized the discipline of art history, in particular reinventing the cultural history of the Americas. In 2003, the College Art Association, in its inaugural award of Distinguished Lifetime Achievement for Art Writing, honored this “towering figure in the history of art, whose voice for diversity and cultural openness has made him a public intellectual of resounding importance.”

Thompson received his B.A. from Yale College in 1955 and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Yale (1961, 1965). He has served on the faculty of Yale since 1965 and has been master of Timothy Dwight College at Yale since 1978.

“African Art in Motion” (1974), an exhibition Thompson created for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., marked a turning point in the field of art history, because through the exhibition and its catalogue, he demonstrated the existence of African aesthetics and their importance to the interpretation of African art. In “The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds” (1981), another acclaimed exhibition, Thompson introduced an almost unknown corpus of outstanding works of art derived from the former Kingdom of Kongo and examined the impact of this heritage on visual culture in the U.S. In 1983, Thompson released his best-selling and controversial book “Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy,” in which he locates the sources of contemporary Black Atlantic aesthetic practices in a diversity of cultures in Africa, the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America. “Flash” marshaled overwhelming evidence to establish the singular importance of African contributions to the visual arts in the Americas. Thompson’s prolific publications also include essays on artists such as James Hampton, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Betye Saar, David Hammons, William Edmonson and Keith Haring. Thompson has been hailed for the soaring lyricism of his prose and his inspirational public speaking.

Of late, Thompson has returned to his earliest passions. His book “Tango: the Art History of Love” (2005) is traces a deep Afro-Atlantic history for what many believed to be a quintessentially white art form. After five decades of research he is taking the transcultural richness of mambo in another forthcoming publication, “Staccato Incandescence: Mambo In Art History.”

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Media Contact

Gila Reinstein: gila.reinstein@yale.edu, 203-432-1325