Interview: Robert Pruitt

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Robert Pruitt, a contemporary griot, creates narratives via drawings, sculpture, and photography that the Signifying Monkey would be proud of. Layered in Black aesthetics and identity, Pruitt’s life-size figures become tricksters who tell tales through contrasting signs, poses, and dress. These Heroes and Heroines are everyday people, like us, who are masked in references to Science Fiction, Hip Hop, comic books, and Black political and social struggles.

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Saint Heron: African Americans are oft considered ambiguous beings, as they are capable of shape shifting via the devices of code switching, signifying, pose [think Dunbar’s “We Wear The Mask”], double-consciousness, etc. As an artist, using the traditional genre of portraiture, how do you pull back the layers of a pluralistic people, to depict who they were, who they are, and who they could be, to a society that has typified the Black body via imagery for hundreds of years?
Robert Pruitt: The most immediate way that I get at pluralism is through juxtaposition. All the different outfits, hairstyles, headdresses and other objects are intended to do just that. They create multiple entryways into each figure’s interior world. Each figure’s personal choices of dress and adornment are intended to help the viewer create a narrative about the figure.

I think a less noticeable way is through the use of time. Most of the works have some reference to the Past, Present and Future. A Victorian dress can be matched with an 80’s fade, or a pair of dunks and traditional sculptures from Africa can be used in space exploration. This idea is to collapse time. These figures exist in all times at once. I’ve always kind of felt that black folks more than anyone are troubled by time. We can be obsessed with trying to reconstruct our past from the fragments of information we have, while at the same time having to move on without any real sense of that past. I think sometimes we spend our lives moving between these two notions.

Each of your drawings seek to build the population of an alternate world, and each photograph seeks to record a royal family lineage, would you consider yourself an ethnographer since you study and record people and culture?
No, I don’t think I would call myself an ethnographer, but ethnography is definitely a large influence on the work. There are some connotations within ethnography that I hope I am shifting. The idea of a passive consumption of bodies and culture through ethnographic photography can be very worrisome to me, but it’s also one of the ways I have learned and observed a lot of info that I am referencing. I try to resolve this in my works by trying to give the subjects of the drawing a sense of agency. From using the gaze, to giving them weapons, to having them, at times, turn their backs to the camera. I like to think there is a bit of negotiation between the figure and viewer that is not often present in actual ethnographic imagery.

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Last year you completed a residency at Tamarind Institute, what was your experience like? What did you learn from the process of translating your drawings into lithography?
Tamarind was really great! I completed a couple of prints, but the editions have not been produced yet. Really looking forward to them. I know very little about printmaking. I’ve always avoided it. I really skated out on it in undergrad. I prefer a more immediate way of working. It’s one of the reasons I make drawings. The process of drawing is instant and accessible. I’ve always imagined that viewers of my work could, on some level, understand how the work was created. I think there’s a mystery to painting and other forms of art making, that puts a bit of magical distance between the artist and viewer that I’m not too fond of. It creates a hierarchy of sorts. Anyway, Printmaking is one of those process-laden practices. The difference here was the team of people available. They allowed me to work in a way that was extremely comfortable, while they managed the actual printing process. This helped me really get an understanding of lithography that I hadn’t had before.

I’ve always wondered if you create your portraiture drawings on Kraft paper, as a historical reference to the brown paper bag test, or was using this medium just happenstance?
No, not really, I did choose that paper for it’s color and it’s resonance with brown skin, but not specifically referencing that paper bag test. I have actually discontinued using that paper, largely because I could not get a wide range of brown values from it. I have started to dye my own paper, using coffees, teas, and fabric dyes. This led to some unexpected results. Not just varying degrees of brown, but I started introducing a whole spectrum of colors: blues, greens, reds etc and more recently I just poured coffee directly on the paper to get a crazy series of stains and shapes as the background.

Let’s talk comics. You completed your first comic, “Fantastic Sagas,” with writer Mat Johnson in 2013. Does the same concepts within comic book subculture intrigue you as an adult, as it did during your adolescence? How has your consciousness expanded with reading and analyzing comics in adulthood?
I still read a lot of comics, yes. However, as an adult I can’t really consume them as passively as I did as a child. The number of characters of color is growing, but still dismal and even then, the stories are largely written through a set of Euro centric values and ideas. This has had the affect of me becoming a turnstile when it comes to reading comics. I still get excited about visiting comic book shops, and I buy a few and read for a few weeks and then I can’t stand it anymore. I seek out artists and characters of color, but I have not personally found enough to sustain a consistent reading practice.

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Weaponry, as an ornamental headdress, was a dominant theme throughout your 2011 photographic body of work. Although the work was very much an ode to Black revolutionary culture, the weaponry and costuming seemed “un alarming” to most viewers and more distinguished, as in aristocratic, since it assimilated Colonial European portraiture. Were the photographs employing the trickster device of signifying? If so, what was the narrative of this royal, Black revolutionary, family’s lineage signifying?
Right, you hit the nail on the head. I wanted to create this lineage of black, matriarchal, power, expressed through portraiture. The guns could operate as “un-alarming” because they are meant to be defensive as opposed to offensive. Black Self defense has had a tumultuous public presence. Black people are not really allowed to be defensive. Here, the weapons are so passively placed that they can almost seem disarming. Still, those are violent objects.

The signifying would be the correlating of Western aristocracy with that level of embedded violence. I don’t often make references to Western cultures in my work but here, because of the history of photography and portraiture that I am working from, it was sort of unavoidable. I would hope the viewer would read these images as not only an “ode” to black power, but also read the form as Western and a nod to the violence and power within those forms.

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