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Sun Ra: ‘The embodiment of… the mid-century wave of Afrocentric science fiction spectacles’

from JAMSBIO magazine


Pathways to Unknown Worlds: 
The Afrofuturism of Sun Ra

By Rick Sawyer

It was more than just jazz for Sun Ra. The pianist and band leader created a total, collaborative artwork that comprised his music, his album covers and iconography, his band and its costumes, his record label, and even his public and private persona. In many substantial ways, Sun Ra was the embodiment of what came to be known as Afrofuturism, the mid-century wave of Afrocentric science fiction spectacles. For Sun Ra, it wasn’t a show. Doctor Funkenstein might have gone back to being George Clinton when the Mothership was packed up, but Sun Ra never stopped being Sun Ra.

The totality of Sun Ra’s art was recently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn & Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-1968 showed the breadth of Sun Ra’s iconography and even gave visitors a chance to see his storied band in action—offering a live performance of the surviving Arkestra members last May along with vintage video and photographs. The show, which had been curated by John Corbett, Anthony Elms and Terri Kapsalis for the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago, consisted of album covers, stray instruments, videos, audio recording, and even corporate memos, each evincing Sun Ra’s total commitment to his aesthetic.

Sun Ra was born Sonny Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, but he wouldn’t let you believe that. He claimed that he came from Saturn, and he took his name from the Egyptian god of the sun. His story, a fusion of the ancient and the otherworldly, would take on a changing array of particulars throughout the years, but the core would remain the same. Sun Ra is not like us, he’s not human, but his music can save the world.

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Posted on August 20, 2009 by Editor

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