To these eyes, too much Sun Ra ephemera is never enough, and WhiteWalls/University of Chicago Press’ new Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn and Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground 1954-68-designed to accompany the exhibition of the same name at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center last fall-is an essential compendium to the mystical, and mystifying, canon of the avant-garde bandleader.
Edited by a trio of writers who know their fair share of outsider art (Down Beat contributor and teacher John Corbett, Baffler writer and Tony Conrad collaborator Terry Kapsalis, and artist and writer Anthony Elms), this visually compelling collection compiles a fascinating array of early Sun Ra and El Saturn artifacts, such as original and unreleased album cover art, letters, notes, business cards, receipts and even a black-light painting (though the latter falls slightly after the book’s time frame, being from 1970). The majority of the items date from the ’50s, when Ra and business partner Alton Abraham were honing and cultivating their Afro-Futurist mythology and persona.
Admittedly, the universe of Sun Ra can be utterly confusing and even ridiculous to those unfamiliar or unwilling to delve into the visionary’s intrinsic logic and worldview. His sense of Afro-Futurism-which melded music and art, science fiction, technology, philosophy, ancient concepts and texts, Utopianism and racial equality-was meant to be taken seriously, sure, but there is an element of humor and adventure that should not be overlooked nor forgotten. If you want to explore Sun Ra’s ideas and background, read John Szwed’s thorough biography, Space Is the Place, or James Wolf and Hartmut Geerken’s The Immeasurable Equation: The Collected Poetry and Prose. Pathways to Unknown Worlds touches upon Ra’s writing and philosophy, but mostly succeeds in revealing the burgeoning iconography of Afro-Futurism and, to a lesser extent, late ’60s avant-garde and free jazz.
Pathways to Unknown Worlds is 144 pages long (with 100 color plates) and retails for $25. It can be ordered from the University of Chicago Press Order Department by calling (800) 621-2736 or (773) 568-1550, or by visiting www.press.uchicago.edu. No Sun Ra completist should be without it.