Cultural Studies: Kellie Jones Talks with Robert Farris Thompson

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Robert Farris Thompson is one of the founding scholars of contemporary Afro-Atlantic and African studies. His landmark writings on topics such as Afro-Cuban dance and Yoruba sculpture posed a newly systematic understanding of cultural forms and meanings not merely as points on a historical continuum but as dynamics of transmission, movement, and change. These ground-breaking texts, composed between the 1950s and the present, were gathered for the first time in his 2011 volume Aesthetic of the Cool. Here, Thompson is joined by Kellie Jones, whose own collected writings, EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art, were published the same year, and who recently curated the seminal exhibition "Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980," currently on view at MOMA PS 1 in New York. Together they engage in a striking dialogue about their lifelong study of art, language, and politics.

KELLIE JONES: You've said that El Paso--your home-town--is the place that prepared you for all your aes-rhetic inquiry.

ROBERT FARRIS THOMPSON: El Paso was a transnational city before anyone thought about that. I went to school with an African American Mexican Jewish guy, Anglos, Greek women. I was able to mix it up with kids who taught me boogie-woogie on the piano and train-whistle blues.

KJ: Then, at Yale, you found your way to a class taught by the preeminent pre-Columbianist George Kubler. From all this, it seems as if you would have ended up concentrating on the ancient Americas or the modern art of Latin America. Instead, you pioneered the study of African art in missives such as "An Aesthetic of the Cool" [19661, Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba Art at UCLA [1971], African Art in Motion: Icon and Act [1974]. How did that happen?

RFT: When I went to Yale, I found out about the Palladium [Ballroom in New Yorkj and I practically lived there. The great goddess at the club was Graciela--Felipa "Graciela" Perez Gutierrez, who sang with the Machito Orchestra, which pioneered Afro-Cuban jazz. She used to add energy to her songs with an idiophone ultimately from Kongo, biri bi kumbi, kumbi-kumbi, biri bi kumbi. With Afro-Cuban jazz, you have this highly transnational course of black culture that conies from Cuba to Harlem.

KJ: But then there was Kubler, too.

RFT: Kubler was the only colleague I had who loved graffiti. I showed him the way the form advanced from scrawls and tags and toys, as they were called, to "wild style." He could see that it was art--no nonsense, just "Yes, this is another field we can add." The course that Kubler taught was the only so-called non-Western--I hate that term--course.

But meanwhile I was reading [W. E. B.] DuBois. I was reading [Melville] Herskovits. Kubler wanted me to study Peruvian antiquity, so I did. But then I realized, "Wait a minute. I'm studying mambo. I'm studying Yoruba. I'm studying Kongo." So I went into a phone booth and called him and said, "I'm living a lie. I've got to study Africa." He said, "Well, you'll be wandering in a desert." I said, "Yeah, but I know where the oases are."

KJ: A close reading of language is integral to your method--you've dedicated so much of your study to the etymologies and structures of myriad African languages. Can you talk about your linguistic turn, your semiotic imagination?

RFT: Well, unless you study African languages as seriously as possible, you're going to miss something. When I worked with the Yoruba, they used a plural to show respect. They would say, "Won do this" and "Won do that." Won is plural, meaning "they." Then it suddenly hit me: Y'all could also be seen as a plural showing respect. That's one of the mysteries of the South. Why do you say "y'all" to one person? It seems to me that one possible explanation is it's an upsurge of the plural of respect in African American English, which everyone now uses.

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KJ: You were also one of the first people to use structural linguistics and ethnographic theories of language in order to study the African diaspora. …