In Memoriam—Robert Farris Thompson, pioneer in study of African and Afro-Atlantic art

Robert Farris Thompson

Robert Farris Thompson, an eminent art historian recognized for his field-leading research and writing on the art, history, culture, dance, and music of Africa and the Afro-Atlantic world, and who was the longest serving head of college in Yale’s history, died on Nov. 29. He was 88.

Thompson was professor emeritus of African American studies and the former Colonel John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art at Yale. For more than a half-century on Yale’s faculty, and during his 32 years as “Master T” at the helm of Timothy Dwight College, he secured his place in the pantheon of beloved professors and university leaders.

Born in 1932 in El Paso, Texas, Thompson was raised by his father, Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, a surgeon, and his mother, Virginia Hood Thompson, a local arts patron, to appreciate the cultures on both sides of the nearby border with Mexico.

It was on a family vacation to Mexico City during his senior year of high school that Thompson first heard Mambo music, an experience that sparked what would become a lifelong passion for Afro-Atlantic music, dance, visual art, and culture. After graduating from Phillips Academy Andover, in Massachusetts, Thompson enrolled at Yale, where he lived in Branford College and completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1955. He then served for two years in the Seventh U.S. Army in Stuttgart, Germany and toured as a drummer with the USO after winning in the All-Army Talent Show. He released an Afro-Cuban percussion album, “Safari of One,” in 1959 before returning to Yale to pursue doctoral work under the famed art historian George Kubler. He received his Yale Ph.D. in art history in 1965 focusing on Yoruba art.

Beginning with a Ford Foundation fellowship to Nigeria in the 1960s, Thompson conducted extensive field research in most African, South American, and Caribbean countries over the course of 60 years. Peripatetic until the end, Thompson most recently was investigating African music and dance in Lima, Peru in 2018. Past students remember him as an enthusiastic polyglot and skilled improvisationalist, known for peppering his lectures with Creole, French, Hebrew, Italian, Kikongo, Portuguese, Spanish, Yoruba, and other languages. By colleagues he is revered as an influential force for his exploration of Afro-American and African cultures — a multi-disciplinary scholar whose approach fused anthropology, art and dance history, ethnomusicology, philosophy, religious studies, and sociology to understand the arts of Africa and the African diaspora within their larger context. He also brought African art to the national stage with two landmark shows: “African Art in Motion” (1974) and “Four Moments of the Sun” (1981) at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Robert Farris Thompson was one of 20th-century scholarship’s greatest originals — an artist, performer, historian, collector of people and ideas, and, most of all, a visionary,” said Mary Miller, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Art at Yale and former dean of Yale College who is now director of the Getty Research Institute. “First, and perhaps foremost, he was a student of the world, always a learner, and a teacher of the world, always guiding others to see what he could see.”

His use of the lectern as a drum during his lectures electrified generations of students, and his generous mentoring of young scholars helped mold future luminaries including Sylvia Boone, William Ferris, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and many others. He was one of the pioneers in Afro-American studies and helped pave the way for future generations in the field. He was friends with multiple generations of artists, including  Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Byrne, Willie Colon, Jonathan Demme, Larry Harlow, Keith Haring, and Tito Puente.

Robert Farris Thompson will always have the distinction of pioneering the study of African art as an academic field within the discipline of the history of art,” said Gates ‘73, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard, who was among the many distinguished scholars who Thompson helped mold as future leaders during his career. “Before Bob earned his Ph.D. in Yale’s art history department, African art was generally regarded as being of anthropological interest, primarily. Bob’s work did more to institutionalize the study of Black art as art than any other scholar’s work before his. When I was a graduate student at the University of Cambridge in 1973, and asked my professor, Wole Soyinka, himself an expert on Yoruba culture and a member of the Yoruba ethnic group, for the best study of Yoruba art and mythology, to my amazement, he handed me a copy of Bob’s now classic work, ‘Black Gods and Kings!’

During Yale’s transitional years, between 1969 and 1973, Bob’s course was perhaps the most popular course for Black students in the whole of the Yale College course catalogue, I think for three reasons:  First, because he established undeniable continuities among African, African American, and Afro-Latin American cultures using repeating visual examples; second, because he was a remarkably entertaining lecturer, simply a visual and verbal feast of brilliance, a mind seemingly in perpetual motion; and third, because he approached his subject with so much respect, humility, and, well, love, as well as hard work… My fellow students even continued to attend his lectures during the strike in April 1970!”

His 32 years as head of Timothy Dwight College (TD) was the longest tenure for any head of college in Yale’s history. His vision, brilliance, commitment, and inspired leadership made TD not only a loved home for its undergraduate residents, but also an exciting place for Fellows, alumni, and friends.

He always reminded first-year students at the dinner that opened their undergraduate career that TD was the college closest to Paris, and that New Haven would be a base to travel from and back to all their lives,” said Miller, who before serving as dean of Yale College was head of college at Saybrook College for nearly a decade. “Students streamed through TD to meet with Chubb fellows, including Octavio Paz on the day that the phone would ring at TD, letting Paz know he had just been named a Nobel Prize recipient, or to learn the Afro-Brazilian martial art, capoeira, on the lawns of TD.”

His former students included CEOs, pro athletes, doctors, engineers, and entrepreneurs who left Yale with an appreciation for the positive impact of African culture on society today.

Thompson’s academic research often included death-defying adventures worthy of the film character Indiana Jones, including narrow escapes from well-armed guerillas, exploding cars, military coups, poisonous snakes, and other close scrapes while conducting field research in remote corners of the globe. His sartorial style was a bold take on traditional J. Press academic attire; he was known for continuing to wear madras shorts well into winter, and hiking the Congo’s Ituri forest with the Mbuti pygmies in well-worn penny loafers.

Thompson was the author of dozens of scholarly and popular articles, including a cover story for Rolling Stone. His many books and catalogs span from “Black Gods and Kings” in 1971 to “Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music” in 2011, as well as a forthcoming life work, “Mambo,” which he called “the book that started every other one.” His landmark book, “Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy,” has been in print continuously since it was published to acclaim in 1984.

Thanks to his sharp mind and open heart, generations of art historians came to discover new areas of inquiry, whether by exploring the Black Atlantic or rethinking the very nature of our discipline and what it means to be an art historian,” said Milette Gaifman, a professor of classics and history of art and chair of the Department of the History of Art. “He was also a warm-hearted colleague, full of energy and wit, to which I was privileged when we had adjoining offices for several years. I already deeply miss the sounds of learning from next-door.”

A consummate fan and supporter of Yale Athletics, Thompson could often be seen on the sidelines of Yale football games encouraging his student athletes. He was also a devoted supporter of intramural sports at Yale. “He loved TD [intramurals],” remembered Mary Lui, the current head of college at Timothy Dwight College, “and once promised to bring in a live lion or even Madonna to rally our Red Lions to battle and bring back another Tyng Cup win. Our lion ice sculptures this past fall and spring, celebrating our latest Tyng victory, has been an effort to honor the great Master T legacy.”

Thompson’s career honors include the Arts Council of the United States African Studies Association’s Leadership award, in 1995; the Dance Studies Association’s Outstanding Contribution to Dance Research Award, in 2007; and Yale’s Chubb Fellowship, in 2009. In recognizing Thompson with its inaugural Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art in 2003, the College Art Association described him as a “towering figure in the history of art, whose voice for diversity and cultural openness has made him a public intellectual of resounding importance.” In May 2021 he was honored with an honorary degree from Yale celebrating his lifetime of academic achievement.

Raised Presbyterian and later a member of the Episcopal church, his broad syncretic spiritual tradition also encompassed several traditional religious societies, including Erinle and Basinjom.

Thompson is survived by his daughter Alicia Churchill; his son Clark Thompson; his sister Ginger Schoellkopf; four grandchildren; and one great granddaughter.

A memorial service will be held in the spring on the Yale campus.