"Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn & Chicago's Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-1968," an exhibit on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art through Aug. 2, captures Ra's ideas in their developmental stages. Curated by journalist and jazz critic John Corbett, the show collects artifacts, memorabilia and artwork from Ra's years in Chicago and New York, before the move to what would be come his Arkestra's permanent home in Philadelphia.
"This body of work really represents the formative years of Sun Ra," Corbett explained during a tour of the exhibit. "It spans the period when he developed this persona, this myth-science as he called it, that was very invested in an exploration of space and its relevance for African-Americans as a concrete metaphor.
"By the time he settled in Philadelphia, the persona was more or less set, so this material allows us to look at how he began to construct this identity."
Sun Ra and His Arkestra have long struggled to claim their rightful place in jazz history. Ra's bizarre pronouncements, colorful costumes and sci-fi preoccupations, along with the band's at times chaotic sound, have led many to dismiss the Arkestra as a sideshow, a novelty act.
But rather than the comic-book spectacle that some critics would make it out to be, Ra's personal reinvention was deeply rooted in the troubled times in which he lived.
Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Ala., in 1914, Ra's name change and claims to hail from Saturn were as much a repudiation of the segregation-era South as they were an attempt at self-mythologizing. His wish to colonize an Afrocentric planet could be viewed as a fantastical analog to the Back to Africa movement.
But Ra's ideas weren't all flights of fancy. As Corbett pointed out during the tour, Ra's Saturn Records was one of the first artist-run record labels.
"This was the birth of the independent music industry, which we now take as a matter of course," Corbett said. "The idea was very rooted in a local grassroots, Afrocentric community of black businesses and designers. They pulled people into the fold to make fliers for shows, to design things for them, to come up with this look that began to incorporate the mixture of space, the Bible and apocalypse, ideas that Sun Ra was leading them to explore."
The fact that this was a venture into the DIY unknown is illustrated by the fact that several sketches and even full designs for album covers on display fail to conform to the square dimensions of an actual LP.
One of the most remarkable objects in the exhibit is a pencil-and-paper collage labeled "Treasure Map for El Saturn," a blueprint for Ra's hopes both practical and fanciful. Amidst sketches of the continents and hieroglyphs are plans for a radio station and recording studio, plus 10,000 acres of land, space for apartments and hotels, "money to fight ignorance" and "food for the hungry."
"It shows his notion of how Saturn Records was going to spread around the world and enlighten everyone on the planet," Corbett said. "That was Sun Ra's stated purpose. He was very concerned about the state of the world in the mid-1950s, both in terms of race issues and in terms of the neglect of beauty."
The collage was created by Alton Abraham, Ra's longtime friend and manager, whose collection makes up the bulk of the exhibit. Corbett salvaged the material after Abraham's death in 1999, when it was threatened with destruction. The exhibit ranges from original art for album covers to business cards, broadsides that Ra handed out on Chicago street corners, even a Christmas card wishing "Better life vibrations" for the holiday season.
While the exhibit cuts off in 1968, the year that Ra moved to the house on Morton Street in Germantown that still serves as home base for the Arkestra, the bandleader's 25-year residence in the city until his death in 1993 makes Philly a logical site for the show.
"There's no place more logical for it to be than here in Philadelphia," Corbett said. "This is the place that Sun Ra finally felt comfortable enough to stay."
Today, the Arkestra is led by alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, who joined the band in the late 1950s during the period represented by the exhibit. Allen reminisced recently about being introduced to Ra's philosophy and how it changed him as a musician and as a human being.
"In the early stages, he had to first change the musicians' and the people's ideas," Allen said. "So whatever he did with those things that you see, he had a bigger job convincing people to open their minds to the space age and independence and creativity. That was hard for musicians with a traditional way of playing, and that was the biggest work of his career, changing the musicians to play his idea of things to come."
Allen will lead the Arkestra in a performance at the ICA on July 1, the first of a series of events coinciding with the exhibit. Upcoming events include a lecture by Ra biographer John Szwed on July 8; a screening of the films "Sun Ra: Brother From Another Planet" and "A Joyful Noise" on July 15; a sonic and visual collage by King Britt on July 22; and performances by Sonic Liberation Front and Planet Y curated by Ars Nova Workshop on July 29.
"When you're younger you dream about you can fly or you can jump 90 feet," Allen said. "But in reality, you have to develop yourself like an athlete. It's the same in the music."
Allen is now confronting the challenges once faced by his mentor as the Arkestra's maestro, a position he's held since 1997.
"It's a good feeling to look back at the beginning and see things when you didn't quite understand them," Allen said of viewing the exhibit.
"It's wonderful to see those things and know that I still got a job ahead of me." *