Robert Pruitt

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.”


(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. 


Rob Pruitt & Robert Pruitt Meet at Last (on the Top Ten List of My 2013 Tumblr Posts)

10. Space is the place—or is there any chance left of going back in time to fix the planet we’re on now?

9. ”I have the feeling that nothing is invisible if you really look carefully enough

8. Don’t Know Much About Glitchometry?

7. Is There a Global Art Esthetic?

6. Robert Pruitt: Reinventing the African American Portrait

5. Rob Pruitt’s Smiley Faces Will Make You Cry 

4. Bringing Some Color to the Guggenheim

3. Nuanced Art Selfie Through a Carlos Cruz-Diez

2. Yayoi Kusama Makes Art Selfie Heaven

1. Great Future in Plastics (in Long Beach, NY)


I finally got my butt over to Studio Museum in Harlem for the Robert Pruitt exhibit: Women. Jaw dropping would be an accurate description of my countenance as I entered the exhibit hall. Being familiar with Pruitt’s work didn’t prepare me for the overall size of his drawings. These large scale charcoal images are stunning in their use of color and detailing. The women stand captured in their individual graces along with vibes from Pruitt’s combination of other worldly elements, a play of street styles and other geeky references that keep the drawings feeling fresh and relevant.

The exhibit runs until Oct 27th, 2013 . Studio Museum in Harlem. 144 West 125th Street. New York, New York 10027 

*Story original featured in my obsessions @ ArtNerdNewYork