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Robert Farris Thompson, ‘Guerrilla Scholar’ of African Art, Dies at 88

He spoke and wrote of African civilizations as infinitely varied ethical, philosophical and aesthetic systems. To grasp their complexity and sophistication, he said, required a “guerrilla scholarship” that combined art history, anthropology, dance history, religious studies, sociology and ethnomusicology. This hybrid practice repeatedly took him out of the academic ivory tower and into rural Africa, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and hip-hop clubs in the Bronx. In all these environments, he was equally, and exultantly, at home.

He was born on Dec. 30, 1932, in El Paso. His father, Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, was a surgeon; his mother, Virginia (Hood) Thompson, was a local arts patron. Professor Thompson later remembered that on a family trip to Mexico City in 1950, during his final year of high school, he heard mambo music for the first time, and that this experience instantly sparked his passion for African culture and let him know that, particularly in the form of popular music, that culture was everywhere around him.

“Mambo,” he said in a 1992 interview with the art historian Donald J. Cosentino that appeared in the journal African Arts, “became my ruling obsession.”

After graduation from Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, he entered Yale, where he took a variety of humanities courses and practiced drumming, with thoughts of pursuing a jazz career. During a two-year Army stint, he won acclaim as a drummer in an Army talent show; in 1959 he released an Afro-Cuban-style percussion album, “Safari of One.”

He took a stab at law school, but he dropped out after a year and went back to Yale to do graduate work in art history. There he studied with George Kubler, a historian of pre-Columbian Mexican and Aztec art, who approached his subject with the kind of unquestioned respect that at the time was customarily awarded in academia to European art.

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