Robert Pruitt’s “A Planetary Survey: New Drawings” is a collection of portraits of Black men and women depicted in rich earth tones and often with elaborate headdresses. Pruitt interweaves his love of science fiction, comic books and Black political history in his portraits. Pruitt depicts everyday people, but he adds an element of regality to each one through Afrocentric symbols. He begins by taking dozens of photographs of a model, who is often a friend.
“I’m going through these images looking for the poses and expressions that seem the most interesting to me, the most exciting to draw. That’s really the root of it all. I love to draw,” Pruitt said. The drawings begin with a real person but change with his interpretation. “In the process of working it really starts to separate from that person and turns into this whole new identity.”
An exhibition of Pruitt’s work begins March 2 at Prographica/Koplin Del Rio (KDR) gallery in Pioneer Square. KDR is holding an opening at the First Thursday Artwalk March 2 at 6 p.m. Artist Kerry James Marshall introduced gallery codirector Eleana Del Rio to Pruitt’s work several years ago. She said the portraits leapt from the page.
“At once they looked familiar, from iconic imagery culled from graphic novels, science projects, African textile patterns, to small historical African figurines — this engaged me to inspect further,” Del Rio said. “In particular, I greatly respect the presence of his female figures.”
One untitled piece (the gallery labels it “Magnificent Medusa”) shows the profile of a woman wearing jeans and a golden yellow shirt with Marvel Comics’ Medusa on the back. Medusa’s flowing crimson locks extend in a wavelike pattern. It mirrors the model’s own long cornrows.
Another includes a reflection of a Black Panther Party slogan. In the drawing, a man is wearing a “Black is Beautiful” shirt with an animal on it and the woman standing next to him leans into his chest. The woman’s hair extends from her head into an abstract shape.
Bill Traylor influenced the piece. Traylor, born into slavery in Alabama in 1854, is considered an “outsider artist,” someone with no formal training who begins making art later in life. He became an artist in his late ’80s. In his work Pruitt intentionally creates a connection with Black artists before him.
“He would do like these animals and people but he would also do these really abstract constructions,” Pruitt said. “Her hair is based on one of those.”
Pruitt’s portraits run counter to the narrative in the images of Black people dominating mass media. Rather than being oversexualized, downtrodden or aggressive, his drawings are of stoic figures often looking out into the distance. The ethereal images are relatable.
Pruitt uses conté sticks — which are made up of natural pigments, graphite and clay — to draw his portraits. Each piece is typically drawn on white paper he has stained with coffee or tea.
Del Rio has a fondness for an untitled portrait of a woman seated and facing the viewer. She’s leaning back with one arm hanging behind the chair. A red ribbon meanders throughout her natural hair, which is adorned with a small sphinx.
“Her inner strength emanates through the piece and out toward the viewer. She is not only inherently and exquisitely beautiful, but for me, it is as if she is saying ‘Bring it on, seated or standing, I am who I am,’” Del Rio said. “I feel a bond, that we are sharing in the same conversation, a conversation about coming together as women, each of us with our own unique voice. Perhaps now more than ever, that is why I feel connected to the piece.”
Pruitt said he’s created an interior conversation within the Black community about the importance of humanity, dignity and power. The humanity conversation is expanded upon in an untitled the gallery labeled “Malcolm’s Camera,” in which a woman is wearing a red shirt along with a black and white chevron patterned skirt. A camera resembling the one Malcolm X used to document his pilgrimage to the Middle East sits atop her hair.
“He was in Mecca filming and being filmed by the CIA at the same time. I was thinking about that kind of weird mirroring. Especially in this moment we’re able to film police brutality, film all these things that are happening to us,” Pruitt said. “I use hair and adornments, things as headdresses, these power objects people can wear on their heads and for me the camera becomes a power object.”
Last year police shootings of unarmed Black men circulated widely on television news, print and on social media. Despite being captured on film, some defended the police officers and immediately launched into victim-blaming with a series of “ifs.” They offered numerous excuses and ignored a police culture shrouded in implicit bias. At its core, the shootings continue happening because Black people, particularly men, are seen as subhuman. If the victims had blond hair and blue eyes, the outrage would be widespread and swift. The police officer would likely be charged and a conviction wouldn’t be a pipe dream.
“Now that we have repetitive videos over and over and over, regardless of how it changes the system, it at least let’s us sort of look at each other and say, see we’re not crazy,” Pruitt said. “This is happening.”
The Texas-born artist described the theme coursing through “Planetary Survey” as Black escape, “a desire to be free from the literal and psychological constraints on the formation of Black identity reaching back to slavery.” Each individual subject is captured at a moment of readiness to embark on a journey.
Given his penchant for science fiction, that journey is likely intergalactic.