Sun Ra at the ICA

Sun Ra show at ICA

WHAT?:"Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn & Chicago's Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-68," an exhibit highlighting the life and work of jazz great Sun Ra, his band Arkestra and his El Saturn Records label.

WHEN?: On display from April 24 to Aug. 2 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St.

WHY?: Stamatina Gregory, the Whitney Lauder Curatorial Fellow at the ICA and the exhibit’s receiving curator, says “Pathways,” which debuted in Chicago in 2007, was brought to the ICA because of the spirit of the exhibition and because of Sun Ra’s connection to Philly.

HOME TEAM: After living in Chicago and New York, Sun Ra (pictured at right, bottom) spent time in Philadelphia until shortly before his death in 1993. “Many members of the Arkestra, which is still performing together as a band, live in Philadelphia,” Gregory says. “And Marshall Allen, who was a very close associate of Sun Ra and who directs the Arkestra, lives here in Philadelphia.”

MEMENTOS: The exhibit features material culture from Sun Ra and Arkestra’s time in Chicago, such as the articles of incorporation of El Saturn Records, booking instructions, a tax book, business cards and Christmas cards. Gregory says the bulk of the exhibition is album art and drawings (above, top), some attributed to Sun Ra, and some attributed to unknown and known artists, such as Claude Dangerfield.

BUSINESS, MAN: In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Sun Ra and the Arkestra created their albums from the ground up. “They would design their own albums or they would collaborate with local black-owned businesses in Chicago,” Gregory says. “Often, they would print the albums too, so there was like a manufacturing approach there.”

PERSONAL CHOICE: Gregory says her favorite part of the exhibit is reading Sun Ra’s writings and manuscripts and looking through the notebook of Alton Abraham, a very close associate of Sun Ra and co-founder of El Saturn Records. “As the receiving curator, being able to look through personal notes and writings and poems, that was an incredible experience,” she says.

SON RA: An exhibit featuring the work of artist Tavares Strachan is on display at the ICA at the same time as “Pathways.” “That was really meaningful to [Strachan] as a ... young black artist dealing with these same kinds of metaphors for the future,” Gregory says. “You have someone like Sun Ra imagining traveling through space in a rocket and then you have someone trying to realize that in the next gallery.”

MORE INFO: For more information, visit

Originally published on April 23, 2009