- Oriki for Robert Farris Thompson
When Drewal was invited to write a praise piece for Robert Farris Thompson for this issue celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of African Arts, he soon realized it was beyond his body-mind-heart, because Bob himself is larger than life, a person who has touched and inspired so many folks in so many walks of life and thought. So Drewal contacted his dear friend and colleague C. Daniel Dawson, who may know Bob better than anyone, as well as Bob's immense circle of admirers. Drewal proposed that they solicit a variety of perspectives from the worldwide Master T "posse" and create a "posse praise poem" in his honor. We had only a short time to pull this together so we both reached out to friends far and wide, gave them four weeks to compose and send their thoughts and feelings in any way they chose. Some have written odes, others have sent poems. One sent a painting. Another sent a citation. Others have contributed photos of Bob past and present. Another sent a song that will be played (http://international.ucla.edu//media/podcasts/PROFE_T-ol-guw.mp3), and a dance that will be stepped (http://international.ucla.edu/media/mp4/drewal-dance-4j-k1b.mp4) . . . All of these acts are acts of love meant for a person who inspires love and more. Where would we be in our understanding and appreciation for the arts of Africa and its many diasporas if the gods had not given us Bob? We think, not very far. He continues to show us the way to be and to think as he works on his latest opus on mambo. We hear his voice, we see his smile, we sense the move in his groove, and we learn once more to share the passion he possesses. Enjoy these words, images, and sounds of praise—this multi-oriki is for you!
To My Favorite Mambo-Freak
Henry John Drewal
"Flash" and "Spirit" come to my body-mind when I think about Robert Farris Thompson, affectionately known as "Bob" or "Master T." His is a spirit that flashes with brilliance, depth, and richness. That extraordinary spirit inspired his Yoruba friends to give him a "pet name" that playfully riffed on his, calling him "Robert Fáàrí tó ńsùn!"—"Robert, the one who plays and enjoys life, even when sleeping!" He is an elder whose presence among us continues to inspire and encourage us to be bold in our feeling, thinking, and doing. I have admired him ever since our first encounters back in the 1960s, after my return from two years of teaching, learning, and a sculpting apprenticeship among Yoruba people in Nigeria. In the midst of graduate work at Columbia University writing my dissertation on Gelede masquerades, I heard he had just come out with Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba Art at UCLA (1971). I panicked, thinking he had just written everything I intended to write in my dissertation! Fortunately for me, his Gelede chapter was a short, pithy, and insightful one, so there was still room for me to say something original. Whew! I pressed on and wrote to him to ask if he would be an outside reader for me as I developed the work. Even though we had not met in person, he wrote back in his distinctive hand, saying he would be pleased and honored to do so. I was embraced by his unfailing, boundless generosity of spirit, his willingness to share and mentor, encourage and guide. He is affectionately known as "Master T"—and for me, not because he was the Master of Timothy Dwight College at Yale, but "Master Teacher" as well.
His classes at Yale are legendary. He inspired not only students of Africa and African Diaspora worlds, artists and art historians, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists...