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Reinventing the African American Portrait

Dogon, Flavin, Outkast, Dave Chappelle, the Incredible Hulk, and more coexist in Robert Pruitt's identity-expanding drawings of women at the Studio Museum

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).


Be of Our Space World, 2010.


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, and unused 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.

The usually aloof women who populate the 20 drawings in the show are based on people he knows, but evolve to look less and less like them, as he transforms their physical qualities and imbues them with their manifold identities.

“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, a founding member of the Houston collective Otabenga Jones & Associates.

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.”

If there is one omnipresent spirit, it’s Sun Ra, whose frequent references to space travel become a symbol of a yearning to transcend troubles in this world.

“It’s this black escapist idea of leaving Planet Earth for this new utopia,” Pruitt says, “the idea that space exists without the encumbrance of racism, discrimination.”

El Saturn, named after Sun Ra’s record company, shows a woman wearing El Saturn, spelled out in a neon head piece. “She’s rocking it almost like a tiara,” Pruitt says. Her shirt is a triangle with a vertical zip in the middle. It’s Broken Obelisk (1963-64), Barnett Newman’s sculptural homage to Martin Luther King, which is installed outside the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

Sun God carries a Dogon sculpture on her head. The cosmological forms in her cornrows echo the design of her T-shirt, based on a 1970 Alma Thomas painting called Eclipse.  Bombs Over Baghdad, named after a song by Outkast, the artist’s favorite group, is a visualization of internalized black anger, symbolized by the nuclear explosion on the woman’s shirt–and in her hair. The shirt is green for a reason–the woman is also a stand-in for the Incredible Hulk, who got his powers from a blast of gamma radiation.

Then there’s Rich Girl. On her head is a Yoruba crown. Her shirt, which says rich, is a play on a 1978 Barkley Hendricks painting called Vendetta (Bitch).

Pruitt calls it his “Dave Chappelle moment.” Add up the two words and you get the comedian’s catchphrase.

Maybe that’s not so clear to the viewer. But that’s OK with Pruitt. “It’s an inside joke to myself,” he says.

To see more of Pruitt’s references decoded, click through the slide show.

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