Reinventing the African American Portrait: Robert Pruitt’s Identity-Expanding Drawings of Women
The iconography of African American hair has been a fertile theme for artists and scholars. But Robert Pruitt might be the first to tackle it through the utopian geometry of the Russian avant-garde. Be of Our Space World, a conté drawing in Pruitt’s bizarre, hilarious exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, depicts an elegant woman with a piercing gaze and a hairdo modeled on one of the most famous models in modernism, Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919).
In this context, though, it bears an obvious and close connection to Nigerian hairstyles.
The woman has a galactic vibe, too. The image on her tunic has two sources: Eternity, one of the abstract characters in Marvel Comics’s Universe Series, andunused album-cover art for Sun Ra, the celestially minded jazz musician whose lyric provides the drawing with its title.
The remix is typical of Pruitt’s more-is-more approach to African American portraiture, where references to African cultures, Western modernism, African American painters, Black Panthers, music, comic-book characters, and sportswear brands coexist—often in a single canvas.
“I put in b-boy style, hip hop, American history, slavery, black revolutionary, all of that stuff in there that’s bouncing around in my mind,” says the artist.
He sees his process as a way to restore identity to a population often drained of it in representations in culture, high and low. “Blackness gets reduced in movies or wherever,” says Pruitt. “I try and make them more expansive, piling on reference after reference.”
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(Top left): Be of Our Space World, 2010; (Top right): Bombs Over Baghdad, 2012; (Bottom left): Rich girl, 2011; (Bottom right): Sun God, 2011. ALL IMAGES COURTESY THE ARTIST AND HOOKS-EPSTEIN GALLERIES INC., HOUSTON, TX.