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Levi Jordan

Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy

by Robert Farris Thompson

Published by Vintage Books, New York. Available at many major bookstores or through web bookstores such as http://www.amazon.com.

This is not a commercial. In fact, we haven't asked Dr. Thompson for permission to share some short excerpts from his book (though we do plan to, very soon). But we hope he won't mind. Excerpts from the Introduction to his book is excerpted below; when reading this, please remember that Dr. Thompson is an art historian. Therefore, the beginning of the Introduction emphasizes the creative aspects of the transformations from Kongo, Yoruba and other African traditions to what become African-American, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Caribbean traditions. Read on, and the reasons his work has been useful to archaeologists will become apparent. Thompson is a student and scholar of material culture and its roots in deeper artistic and philosophical traditions. Many archaeologists are as well.

Introduction (excerpts)
Thompson on the Kongo Cosmogram (excerpts)
Thompson on the amula (excerpts)

Questions or Comments?
Please let us know!

While these excerpts are necessarily short (because of copyright restrictions) we hope they will give you an idea of the general approach Thompson uses. In his study of the art and philosophy of Africa, and of Africans in the Americas, he communicates much about the dignity, energy, and dynamism of classical African art, and shows how those characteristics permeate everyday culture as well as artistic expression of African Diasporan people in the western hemisphere.

It is important to remember that archaeologists do not use Thompson's book (or other sources of ethnographic information) as "proof" of the meaning of anything they might find in the ground. His book, and other secondary and primary sources about the material cultures of African and African-Americans, are best used as ways to frame questions about the artifacts and artifacts contexts found in the ground. See Ethnography for more about this approach.


Introduction: The Rise of the Black Atlantic Visual Tradition
by Robert Farris Thompson

Listening to rock, jazz, blues, reggae, salsa, samba, bossa nova, juju, highlife, and mambo, one might conclude that much of the popular music of the world is informed by the flash of the spirit of a certain people specially armed with improvisatory drive and brilliance.

Since the Atlantic slave trade, ancient African organizing principles of song and dance have crossed the seas from the Old World to the New. There they took on new momentum, intermingling with each other and with New World or European styles of singing and dance. Among those principles are the dominance of a percussive performance style (attack and vital aliveness in sound and motion); a propensity of multiple meter (competing meters sounding all at once): overlapping call and response in singing (solo/chorus, voice/instrument – "interlock systems of performance); inner pulse control (a "metronome sense", keeping a beat indelibly in mind as a rhythmic common denominator in a welter of different meters); suspended accentuation patterning (offbeat phrasing of melodic and choreographic accents); and, at a slightly different but equally recurrent level of exposition, songs and dances of social allusion (music which, however danceable and "swinging", remorselessly contrasts social imperfections against implied criteria for perfect living).

Flash of the Spirit is about visual and philosophic streams of creativity and imagination, running parallel to the massive musical and choreographic modalities that connect black persons of the western hemisphere, as well as millions of European and Asian people attracted to and performing their styles, to Mother Africa. Aspects of the art and philosophy of the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Republic of Benin; the Bakongo of Bas-Zaire and the neighboring Cabinda, Congo-Brazzaville, and Angola; the Fon and Ewe of the Republic of Benin and Togo; the Mande of Mali and neighboring territory; and the Ejagham of the Cross River in southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon; have come from sub-Saharan Africa to the western hemisphere.

All of these traditions are ancient and charged with nobility of blood and purpose. And all of them, with the exception of the villager Ejagham, are urban. Since the Middle Ages or earlier, the ancestors of the Yoruba, the Bakongo, the Fon, and the Mande peoples have lived in commanding towns, centers of visual richness and creativity. Even the Ejagham, with their widely imitated important men and women associations, founded respectively under the sign of the leopard and the crocodile – emblematic of intimidating powers of moral vengeance and strong government – live surrounded by miniature versions of the trappings of the courts of ancient urban queens and kings.

These civilizations not only were impressive for their urban density, refinement, and complexity, but were empowered with an inner momentum of conviction and poise that sent them spiraling out into the world, overcoming accidents of class, status, and political oppression. The rise, development, and achievement of Yoruba, Kongo, Fon, Mande, and Ejagham art and philosophy fused with new elements overseas, shaping and defining the black Atlantic visual tradition. To portray not only the originating impulses of these different black civilizations but some sense of the special inner drive and confidence that has kept them going – that showered the northeast of Brazil with famous beads and emblems and gowns of the Yoruba and Dahomey; that fundamentally enriched the culture of North America with profound and sophisticated Kongo- and Angola- influenced herbalism, mental healing and funereal traditions among black people of the Old Deep American South and so on – this is the scope and sweep and purpose of this book...

...Flash of the Spirit opens with a discussion of the art and ideals of the Yoruba, black Africa's largest population, creators of one of the premier cultures of the world. The Yoruba believe themselves descended from goddesses and gods, from an ancient spiritual capital, Ile-Ile....There are thousands of deities in Yoruba territory, western Nigeria and eastern Benin Republic, but only the most widely worshipped and important survived the vicissitudes of the Atlantic Trade...I offer portraits of ten orisha, deities of the Yoruba, to represent the impact of the mind and spirit of millions of Yoruba in West Africa on key black urban populations in the Americas, most notably in Havana, Salvador, Brazil, and the heavily Hispanic barrios of certain cities of the United States, especially Miami and New York. In other words, the richness of detail, moral elaboration, and emblematic power that characterize the sacred art of Yoruba in transition to Brazil, Cuba and the United States, as sampled in this volume, is but an introduction to the wider universe of interlocking forms that will require future books fully to explore and explain. [see Ken Brown's description of the amula buried in the ground in what he interprets as the curer's cabin at the Jordan Plantation for an example of Yoruba ritual manifested in material culture].

Also widespread across the black Atlantic world are the signs and insights of the great Kongo people of Zaire, Angola, Cabinda, and Congo-Brazzaville. There is a clear connection between the cosmographic signs of spiritual renaissance in the classical religion of the Bakongo and similarly chalked signs of initiation among blacks of Cuba, Haiti, the island of St. Vincent, the United States, and Brazil where numerous Kongo slaves arrived. The Kongo sign of the four moments of the sun – dawn, noon, sunset, and the mirrored noon of the dead that we call midnight – the master icon of their religious and philosophic works, informs the rituals of heavily Kongo-influenced parts of the new world...These can be compared with yet more signs, richly reflecting Christian and other Western influences, on the isle of St. Vincent in the black Caribbean and with others found among Kongo-Cubans and U.S. mainland blacks from Memphis to the Carolina coast. These drawings and their accompanying rituals of healing and/or initiation reflect the confluence of originating Kongo impulses plus other African and European influences.

In Haiti occurred a deep synthesis of the main forms and tenets of the classical religions of the Yoruba, the Dahomeans, and the Bakongo that was partly informed by the saints of the Roman Catholic Church and by their attributes. The result was vodun: formally speaking, one of the richest and most misunderstood religions of the planet...

...Flash of the Spirit, then, illumines the art and philosophy connecting black Atlantic worlds. I hope, in opening some of these lines of inquiry, that the identification and explanation of some of these mainlines, intellectually perceived and sensuously appreciated, will provide a measure of the achievement of African civilizations in transition to the West, for theirs is one the great migration styles in the history of the planet.

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