Saturn's Ark: The Improvised Archives, Politics, and Performances of Sun Ra

Thumbnail Image
Lefresne, Brian
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
University of Guelph

This dissertation examines the relationship between Black experimental performer Sun Ra (and his ensemble known as the Arkestra) and the archives of Black expressive culture. The archive, both conceptually and physically, provides a theoretical approach to understanding the cultural and social influences present in the musical performances, social practices, and politics of Ra and the Arkestra. In Chapter One, I detail how Ra’s elaborate concert spectacles known as “myth-rituals” should be understood as an act of archival preservation and intervention. Within these concerts Ra was able to maintain traditions of Black sacred and secular performance cultures that provided a performative grammar to ward off the commodification of jazz and other improvised musics within formal settings. In the second chapter, I shift my attention towards Ra and the Arkestra’s clothing and fashion. I argue that these sartorial choices may be seen as an “alternative archive.” The materiality and style of Ra and the Arkestra’s clothing function as an archival repository that captures the heterogeneity of, and often competing, discourses around Black visual and embodied identity politics of early 1970s America. Moreover, I suggest that Ra and the Arkestra’s dress is in dialogue with Black diasporic traditions of dandyism and tricksterism. The final chapter shifts towards the historical moment of the Space Race. In this chapter I suggest that Ra’s sounds, words, and visual identity from the years 1969-1972 must be seen as part of a wider movement of Black diasporic cultural actors whose works form what I call the Black counter-archive of the Space Race. I contend that Ra and his contemporaries produced cultural artefacts that can be positioned as part of an archival repository that critiques the mainly American and wholly white archive of human-powered space travel and exploration. In my conclusion, I examine how Ra’s persona and his performance practices (in tandem with the Arkestra) confound conventional approaches to archives and archiving. This discussion is followed by a brief coda where I explore the ways in which the practice of engaging in archival research might itself be seen as an improvisatory act.

Sun Ra, Archives, Performance, Race, African American Culture, Dress, Space Race, Jazz, Improvisation