Fragments of the Alter-Future: Sun Ra Meets Napoleon

An exhibition juxtaposing historical materials about ancient Egypt and the obsession with Egyptology from Bonaparte to Sun Ra


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Curatorial practice
  • Memory
  • Performance

Organizing Institutions


Contributing Institutions

International House Philadelphia


Aaron Levy, Mark Christman


Critic Francis Davis, collector Larry Nai, film curator Michael Chaiken, and the estate of David Quinn (d. 2004), a remarkable collector and avid Egyptologist

Opens to public



4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104


0% Formal - 100% Informal

Slought is pleased to announce "Sun Ra Meets Napoleon: Fragments of the Alter-Future," an exhibition from November 20, 2004-January 31, 2005 that playfully juxtaposes historical materials pertaining to ancient Egypt and the continual inspiration and relevance of Egyptology from the time of Bonaparte to that of Sun Ra. What lies behind the Occidental obsession with all things Egyptian.

This unusual curatorial approach features illustrated plates from 1822 by Giovanni Belzoni, widely acknowledged as the father of modern Archaeology, concerning his groundbreaking discoveries amidst the pyramids, temples, and tombs in Egypt; Jean-François Champollion's 1824 publication detailing his system for deciphering the Rosetta Stone hieroglyphs; and archival materials by avant-garde musician Sun Ra, along with a previously unreleased audio interview relating Sun Ra's infatuation with Egypt by Jazz critic Francis Davis.

Historical materials on display pertaining to Sun Ra include: Saturn Research LPs (with original cover art designed by members of the Sun Ra Arkestra), and assorted poetry and writings by Sun Ra. Rarely seen footage of the Sun Ra Arkestra is also featured in the exhibition as well as our storefront video display, including private films of the Arkestra in Berkeley, Egypt, and Italy in the late 60s and early 70s, and a live performance recorded at Paul Bley's Axis-In-Soho, NYC, on May 20, 1977.

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Sun Ra (1914-1993), among the most unusual composers in the history of jazz, was born Herman "Sonny" Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914. Though he began recording in the late '40s, Ra's career didn't take off until the early '50s, when Blount adopted his now-famous moniker ("Le Sony'ra") and began claiming he came from Saturn. Infatuated with ancient Egypt, outer space and New Age mysticism, Ra formed a Chicago-based group called the Arkestra, which played an intriguing mix of bop, free jazz, and proto-electronic music. In 1956 he founded his own label, Saturn Records, and five years later relocated to New York, where he established himself as one of the more eccentric performers, releasing bizarre recordings which foreshadowed jazz fusion and ambient music by blending traditional jazz instruments with electric keyboard and unconventional song structures. In 1970 Sun Ra moved to Philadelphia, where he continued recording and performing for a small but loyal jazz and rock audience until his death in May 1993. In recent years an orchestrated effort by music historians to catalogue Ra's sidemen and recording sessions has been undertaken, resulting in the release of the discography The Earthly Recordings Of Sun Ra. The Sun Ra Arkestra continues to tour and record under the directon of the Arkestra's longtime alto player, Marshall Allen.

Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832) is widely acknowledged as the father of modern Egyptology. At the College de France, Champollion specialized in languages of the Orient, and was familiar with languages including Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldean, Chinese, Coptic, Ethiopic, Sanskrit, Pahlevi, and Persian. He was appointed the conservator of the Louvre Museum's Egyptian Collection in 1826. He is best known for deciphering the hieroglyphics contained on the Rosetta Stone, laying the foundations for Egyptian Archaeology. The Rosetta Stone was inscribed with a law made in 196 BCE, written in two forms of hieroglyphics and in ancient Greek. Champollion translated the Egyptian writing into Greek after more than 20 years of work; he concluded that hieroglyphics had originally been pictographs, and stood for sounds in later times. His discoveries made it possible to understand hieroglyphics, and by extension ancient Egyptian civilization.

Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823), an Italian showman, engineer and explorer of Egyptian antiquities, was born in Padua, Italy. His quest for adventure brought him to England in 1803 and by means of his gigantic physique, earned a living in circuses in England, Spain and Portugal and where he was billed as "The Great Belzoni". In 1815 he went to Cairo to offer to Mohammed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt, a hydraulic machine he had invented, which worked extremely well. While in Egypt he met the British Consul General, Henry Salt, who engaged him to travel to Thebes to remove the colossal stone head of Rameses II (The Young Memnon) to be delivered to the British Museum. His success prompted Henry Salt to further Belzoni's expeditions to the temple of Edfu, Philae and Elephantine, where he cleared the great temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel, excavated at Karnak, and in 1817 discovered the tomb of the pharaoh Seti I, in the Valley of the Kings. Belzoni was the first person to penetrate into the second pyramid of Giza (1818) by using his engineering genius to locate the entrance to the inner chambers, and the first European to visit the oasis of Siwah, and identify the ruined city of Berenice on the Red Sea. He returned to England in 1819 and a year later published his "Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia" (2 vol., atlas of plates, 3rd ed., 1822). In 1825 his widow exhibited in Paris and London his drawings and models of the royal tombs of Thebes.

Film Screening

December 2, 2004, 7pm
International House (3701 Chestnut Street)

Join us for a rare screening of the only 35mm print of "Space is the Place" (John Coney, 1974). Science fiction, blaxploitation, cosmic free-jazz and radical race politics combine when Sun Ra returns to earth in his music-powered space ship to battle for the future of the black race and offer an "alter-destiny" to those who would join him. Created as an homage to the low-budget science fiction films of the 50's and 60's, "Space is the Place" became a visual embodiment of Sun Ra's Afro-Egyptian myth of salvation in outer space. Special effects, outrageous plot line and apocalyptic message harmonize with the otherworldly score and a climactic live performance by one of the most innovative and profound groups in jazz history. After having traveled through space in a yellow spaceship propelled by music, Sun Ra finds a planet he believes could serve as a new home for the black race. Returning to earth, he lands in Oakland, California, circa 1972, declaring "I am the alter-destiny, the presence of the living myth," and battles The Overseer, played by Ray Johnson, a supernatural villain exploiting the black people. The Overseer, the FBI, and NASA -- who are after Ra's Black Space Program -- attempt to assassinate Ra, who escapes into space with his followers before the destruction of Earth.

"Space is the Place" defies easy categorization: it is at once a platform for Sun Ra's radical racial philosophies, an indictment of the government's policies in Vietnam-era U.S., cult camp flick, sci-fi movie and concert film with unforgettable performances by the Intergalactic Solar Arkestra. Since its extremely limited release in 1974 -- the film played very briefly in San Francisco and New York -- "Space is the Place" has become an underground legend spoken about but never seen, and if so, in poorly dubbed bootlegs or in the severely adulterated 1992 VHS version.

Plexifilm has beautifully restored the film (featuring the original Director's Cut with over 20 minutes of restored footage) to bring Sun Ra's message of black liberation in space to a contemporary audience.

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