The late jazz musician and band leader Sun Ra told of having a mystical experience in his youth in which he was transported to Saturn and instructed to speak to the world in troubled times to come.
For the rest of his life, Sun Ra’s avant garde jazz, outlandish dress and sometimes obscure pronouncements confounded the music establishment and many listeners. A decade and a half after his death, he is credited with having been a forerunner of the Afrofuturist movement that uses technology and science fiction to re-imagine the Black experience.
Sun Ra’s work is being celebrated in “Pathways to Unknown Worlds” at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art. The exhibit, which runs through Aug. 2, was first shown at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago and has now come to the city where Sun Ra lived for the last quarter-century of his career.
Born Herman Blount in 1914 in Birmingham, Ala., Sun Ra spent World War II as a conscientious objector working in a forestry camp in Marienville, Pa. He then moved to Chicago, took the name of an Egyptian deity, insisted that he was not human but from an “angel race,” and set about producing music aimed at nothing less than transforming the world.
“The destiny of this planet is at stake; one fatal further mistake can cause its long-delayed destruction,” he said in a 1968 essay about his music. “Freedom to me means freedom to rise above a cruel planet.”
Dressed in flowing robes with ancient Egyptian and metallic space motifs, Sun Ra and the musicians he dubbed the “Arkestra” played an eclectic mixture that incorporated bebop, African drumming and chant, big band, and early electronic instruments.
The group moved to New York in 1961 and seven years later relocated to the Germantown section of Philadelphia, where Sun Ra lived until shortly before his death in 1993 – despite his lack of enthusiasm for a city he called “the worst place in America.”
Sun Ra also formed a company to produce his own records, a rarity for a musician in the 1950s, and his El Saturn Research label churned out dozens of discs over the following decades.
The exhibition includes album covers and sketches, designed by Sun Ra or his associates and sometimes manufactured by the company. Many have space imagery, such as 1968’s “Jazz in Silhouette,” which shows half-nude women soaring above the craters and mountains of a reddish planet.
Headphones allow patrons to listen to the group’s music, and a life-sized figure of Sun Ra in full regalia stands next to a TV screen showing his feature-length movie, “Space is the Place,” which has been described as “part documentary, part science fiction, part Blaxploitation and part revisionist biblical epic.”
Also on display are typewritten broadsheets in which Sun Ra expounds on his philosophy with a mix of religious exhortation, fanciful etymology and often murky polemic, as well as business cards, letters, and other memorabilia.
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