Robert Farris Thompson: Canons of the Cool
A bottle of Cinzano, a can of hairspray, a menorah, a machete and a broken jukebox are devotional objects adorning the altar of a vodun (“voodoo”) temple on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The temple is situated in the compound of André Pierre, vodun priest and painter, alongside a ditch on the road to Cap-Haïtien. There are wrecked cars in the courtyard, dogs, goats and a small tethered bull. Arriving from Francois Duvalier International Airport, in a frame of mind predisposed toward omens, I cannot help noticing a large nearby traffic sign that reads, LA ROUTE TUE ET BLESSE (“The Road Kills and Wounds”).
Robert Farris Thompson and I have come down to Haiti on a 10:30 a.m. flight from New York to pass the weekend with André Pierre and with Madame Nerva, a vodun priestess. Thompson is an art historian, a tenured professor at Yale and master of Timothy Dwight College there. I am a former student of his, come along to watch Bob make what he calls “a little sounding” — “a little sondage.” André Pierre is the Haitian Fra Angelico, a vodun cleric whose canvases hang in the Haitian national museum; copies of his work fill airport postcard racks. André Pierre’s wife, children and cousins’ children stir from their shaded mats as Thompson rolls into the compound in his green rented car, calling out, “Bam nouvelle” and “Comment u-ye?”
Tiny, bleary and black, André Pierre summons us out of the heat into his studio. The walls are covered with bright vodun altarpieces — diptychs and triptychs of Ogûn, god of iron; Agoué, lord of the sea; Erzuli, goddess of love; and Damballah, serpent-god of creativity, fecundity and rain. Next to the easel hangs a tasseled military uniform for Baron Samedi, lord of the graveyard, pressed neatly in its dry-cleaning bag.
With the reverent, custodial manner of an abbot showing visitors around a venerable monastery in southern France, André Pierre takes us on a tour of the corrugated-tin temple. He shows us through altar rooms containing drums, basins, scythes, playing cards, liquor, whips and beds (in which André Pierre sleeps when he spends the night with a particular deity). He talks a Creole stream of vodun theology as he points and walks. Suddenly, André Pierre breaks into a song to illustrate a particular idea; it matches a painting he’s explaining, the way a requiem matches a crucifixion. Thompson grabs a drum and begins to drum and sing along. When they finish, as a celebratory gesture, they each pour a dollop of root liquor onto the ground. Thompson, sketching every detail of the altar, alerts me in an English aside to be careful near the stone basins in the dark room, because those dedicated to Damballah, the serpent god, sometimes contain snakes.
By nightfall, Thompson has sweated through his polo shirt, filled a notebook and a half with sketches and jottings, begun a monograph on the iconography of 10 vodun paintings, drummed, drunk and made an appointment to return early the next day. As we set off to find our hotel, Thompson, excited, explains the moral subtleties of everything we’ve seen. He tells me our schedule: we’re due the next evening in Jacmel, across the mountains, to watch Madame Nerva celebrate the rites of the love goddess, Erzuli. I am exhausted, having found the trip from Manhattan to the temple of André Pierre in one afternoon to be too much. Thompson, though, seems to feel no strain in the day’s movements; he enters Haiti quite fluidly. In fact, he only seems to be coming into his own.
White of skin, white of hair and white of origins, education and society, Robert Farris Thompson fell in love with black music, black art and blackness 30 years ago and has spent his entire career in the grips of that particular passion. Following an instinct aroused by a mambo overheard in 1950, Thompson has learned fluent Ki-Kongo, Yoruba, French, Spanish and Portuguese and is learning a score of Creole and tribal languages; wandered, with pygmies, Zaire’s Ituri forest; become a vodun acolyte; written four books on West African religion, philosophy and art; and organized two major exhibitions at Washington’s National Gallery. He has also become, by dancing in an indigo costume embroidered with seashells taken from the gizzards of dead crocodiles, a “junior-varsity member of the Basinjon Society,” a Cameroun tribal agency for controlling lightning and other natural forces.
Incorporating anthropology, sociology, ethnomusicology and what Thompson calls “guerrilla scholarship” (i.e., “We’ll let the fud-duds footnote their way across that“), Thompson’s career is bent toward a single end: the learned advocacy of black Atlantic civilization. He spends his life pursuing the scholarly thrill of making coherent and meaningful what is misunderstood as random, superficial or obscure. As an art historian will extract from basilica floor plans a comprehension of the medieval mind, or from late Roman statuary an understanding of the empire’s decline, Thompson works from the iconography of salsa, dance steps, clothes, sculpture, gesture and slang to a definition of blackness. He loves to show how sophisticated the “primitive” really is. As archeologist, he brings artifacts to life; as critic, he deciphers them; and as true believer, he promotes their artistic and spiritual worth.
Thompson’s newest book, Flash of the Spirit, explains the roots of African influence in the New World. It serves as a sort of Baedeker to funk. One reviewer wrote, “This book does for art history what the dunk shot did for basketball.”