Pruitt’s Artpace installation exemplifies his renegotiation of stereotypes of black identity, and he considers this body of work one of his most tightly conceived to date. Included are the artist’s prints made from pencil drawings depicting African-Americans marked by diverse temporal and cultural signifiers. In one, Self-portrait As A Great Benin Emperor In The 23rd Century (2007), Pruitt depicts himself in jeans, sunglasses, a jersey emblazoned with the #23 of basketball greats Michael Jordan and LeBron James, and a West African woven crown that cloaks the neck of this urban representation with ancestral rings.
Pruitt’s photographs have an even greater degree of factuality and demonstrate the artist’s diverse array of interests—ancestral homelands, recent politics, and the future of race relations—all of which carry the potential to positively define 21st-century black culture, resisting the negative and superficial stereotypes circulated in the mass media. In one of the more than two-foot wide images, a woman wearing the leather uniform of a Black Panther works in a study, surrounded by a telescope and books about Black Nationalism, hairstyles, and superheroes. She channels the confidence of a politicized perspective, directing science in a racially conscious manner.
A pair of photographic portraits explores the commanding role that the media’s gaze plays in shaping perceptions. They feature action figures of Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson, two African-Americans whose celebrity has achieved global proportions. Though their reputations have occasionally been tarnished by their own sensational behavior, their unquestionable popularity is evidenced by the continued market viability of the dolls bearing their likenesses. Pruitt’s photographic portraits deify these personalities and underscore the seminal place such celebrities have in the constant renegotiation of identity.
Philosopher Michel Foucault has suggested that revolutions are not the result of sudden uprisings, but the accumulated tension created by many small moments of opposition. Robert Pruitt’s most recent works oppose the persistent simplification of black culture in the mass media by reflecting the richly hybrid reality of his African-American community. His drawings, photographs, and sculptures fight through a succession of tightly formed points of resistance.
- Kate Green