If you’re walking along Occidental Avenue in Pioneer Square and pass by Koplin Del Rio (KDR) gallery, chances are Robert Pruitt’s drawings will catch your attention. His towering figures are set against a coffee-stained background and beckon more than the casual glance. Inside, “Man with Halo” is one of the first works visitors see in the gallery. Pruitt depicts the rear view of a nude Black man. His muscular form is adorned with a herringbone chain headdress in his curly hair. The gold necklace also appears in other works by Pruitt.
“The herringbone is a chain that I always wanted in high school. They were very popular and I thought they were very beautiful,” said Pruitt. “An object that I can now use to function as a symbol of value, a symbol of beauty and elegance.”
When Pruitt talks about his work, he’s hesitant to specify what each drawing means. Rather, he’ll share what was on his mind during the creative process. For “Man with Halo,” Pruitt was working on a zine and thinking of the diagrams of slave ships that show how stolen people from Africa were packed inside.
In “Sarcophagus,” a woman is enveloped by a sea of gold leaf. Only her face and a portion of her feet are exposed. For this drawing, Pruitt was thinking of the Egyptian burial practices and the Middle Passage.
“An ocean in between two continents, and that created a transformation of identity,” said Pruitt. “Africans being transported to America and then you get this sort of hyphenated identity. Which is where an entire culture of people come from. In that sense, it is transformation.”
The artist said the drawing also evokes sensory deprivation tanks, which is a way to transcend the mind and body.
“Being able to kind of freely move into this other space. For me I use space, cosmos as a metaphor for that,” said Pruitt. “The liberty of floating, of being out of this situation of racial whatever. Transcendence is really just about liberation.”
Identity, transformation and transcendence are recurring themes in his solo exhibition titled “Robert Pruitt: The Majesty of Kings Long Dead” at KDR. This is his second solo show at the gallery’s Seattle location and fifth overall since their relocation from Los Angeles. “Majesty” builds on a body of larger-than-life drawings of Black people in an unnamed universe. The artist is providing a definition of Black identity. Unlike other groups, Black Americans have lost a significant amount of history. Once their ancestors arrived on the shores of the United States, people became property and with it, individuality plus tribal connection became lost across the Atlantic Ocean. As Pruitt builds a Black celestial sovereignty, he’s incorporating aspects of his own life and Black culture.
“The thing that we’re living under doesn’t seem to be working for us, so maybe we need to imagine a new thing,” said Pruitt. “Myth, science fiction, all of that is a way to kind of for me to think about another kind of way of living.”
It’s no surprise Pruitt’s work is in part influenced by his adoration for science fiction and comic books. When he initially began studying art at Texas Southern University in his hometown of Houston, he had every intention of becoming a comic book artist. But when the longtime Marvel fan was introduced to a studio practice, it was a turning point. It opened up the opportunity for him to create whatever he wanted.
Pruitt considers drawing to be an accessible medium. He’s not shy about pointing out lines he wasn’t able to erase on a piece or mistakes he’s made. His creations aren’t shrouded in mystery. Audiences can see how his distinguished figures come to life with every stroke.
The drawing “Black and Red Power Crew” shows four men standing together. They’re all wearing a type of crown, including an orrery that’s still plugged in. It was inspired by a scene he encountered soon after moving to New York City a couple years ago. Pruitt said he was walking by a playground in Chelsea when he noticed a group of four Black men wearing FedEx uniforms standing together. They appeared regal to him as they were collectively communicating in a protected circle. Because they were in uniform, it reminded Pruitt of the Justice League, a team of superheroes with DC comics. “Black and Red Power Crew” is his recreation of the energy of their composition.
Pruitt also included an Easter egg in a walkie-talkie that’s on display. The vintage piece is manufactured by MacDonald Instruments, and if you look closely, you can see that it’s been changed to MacDowell Instruments. The switch is a reference to the 1988 movie “Coming to America.”
Pruitt’s newest body of work is just as compelling as his last exhibition, “Planetary Survey.” Each drawing gives the viewer a larger window into the world he’s building. While those who see the show will have varying interpretations of the prominent figures, he’s clear on what he wants Black audiences to come away with when they see the work.
“A rediscovery of your humanity your own humanness by seeing these like big figures that feel like they have life, vitality and are a reflection of you,” said Pruitt. “That’s my dream as an artist. It is a journey to keep making work that gets closer and closer to things that do that.”
WHAT: “Robert Pruitt: The Majesty of Kings Long Dead”
WHEN: Runs until Sept. 28
WHERE: Koplin Del Rio, 313 Occidental Ave S., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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