at California African American Museum, Los Angeles (through February 17, 2019)
Reviewed by Ellen C. Caldwell
Robert Pruitt: Devotion is Houston-born and New York-based Robert Pruitt’s first major museum exhibit in Los Angeles, and it is a must-see and muse-experience. California African American Museum (CAAM) features Devotion in a large interior room, with plenty of light and room for a show with large-scale charcoal works on paper, paintings, sculptures, and installations.
As the title suggests, the room feels religious in nature — in the way that people are quietly and respectfully moving from one work to another; in the way that people seem in awe of both the art, the artifice, and the artifacts surrounding them; and in the way that the work is speaking to people individually, poetically, and more largely in a community sense. Devotion is an experience that CAAM’s Visual Arts Curator Mar Hollingsworth has curated beautifully and masterfully.
There is an air of quiet as visitors circumambulate the space, a movement itself reserved for the ritual nature of a religious follower circling a temple or sacred object. A light call of music seeps out quietly and distinctly from one of the installations and lends to the sacred mood and aura of the show. Moving from piece to piece, viewers observe, see, feel, read, and then move on to the next piece to start this repetitive ritual another time over.
Pruitt chose works from CAAM’s permanent collection to exhibit alongside his own work. These included artistic influences ranging from precolonial African art to works by John Biggers and Charles White. These works are gems amidst Pruitt’s own diamonds. Many of Pruitt’s works and others he chose to include referred to head pieces of some sort, including masks, like the Yoruba Gelede headdress; hats, like the black Malcolm X baseball hat that sits aglow atop a blue LED light in Thinking Cap (2008); and wigs like the Joyokalon wig worn by Ella Fitzgerald from the 1960s. As the wall label for Fitzgerald’s wig explains, “Like hats, wigs are headpieces that draw attention to their bearers and can be markers of their power or talent. In his own work, Pruitt emphasizes the importance of the head as a channel for receiving spiritual energy, a concept common in African art.”
These are indeed all power(ful) objects. As if capturing or nurturing the potent brain power of its wearer, these seemingly mundane objects become symbolically charged. In focusing on them, Pruitt elevates both the object and the unpictured wearer. They are at once sacred icons and accessories to greatness.
Some of Pruitt’s sculptures are readymades of sorts, including a work called Africa Then, named after the book entitled Africa Then, by Nicolas Monti. The book hovers on a shelf ten feet above the viewer. It is in fact so high that a viewer could not possibly see its contents, but it is as if its very presence looms largely above and beyond us. The publisher’s synopsis for the book describes it as “Excerpts from the letters, diaries, and journals of European travelers accompany photos of Africa before and during the changes caused by contact with the West.” With works like this and the aluminum foil-wrapped wooden Male Figure and Female Figure (2011), and the Gelede headdress, Pruitt draws connections to pre- and post-colonial Africa. Through them, he references the consuming colonial narrative (here, one that quite literally hovers above us) that continues to shape history and historiography, making his show a contemporary exploration of the African diaspora of the past, present, and future — both within and outside of CAAM and Los Angeles’ own African American community and artworld.
Foreground sculptures: Angel Hists Devil. Carved and painted wood. c. 1900’s.
In one of the more immersive installations called Rearview Mirror (2018), viewers sit on a bench, beneath a spherical hanging speaker and before a dark, seemingly black painting. From the bench’s position, you are inundated with music made in collaboration with composer J▵WW▵▵D.
As you look and listen, you begin to tune out the people in the gallery around you and tune into the work before you. Slowly, you begin to notice a small sliver of white appear towards the center of the black void of the painting. As you do, you realize that you are in fact watching Earth recede into the distance, perhaps as you yourself are traveling beyond, far and away.
This is an amazingly jarring experience within the museum’s walls. Through sight, sense, and sound, Pruitt is able to pull you out of the grounded wooden floors and onto an intergalactic journey.
There is a feeling sitting under the speaker, where it feels like music is coming from within and around — you are literally bathing your head in it, surrounded by the sound. And as you stare at the diminishing Earth in the vast black sky, the experience is suggestive and strong, experimental and emboldening.
With Rearview Mirror, Pruitt offers viewers a voyage to another life, or to another planet, or to another time. He physically encapsulates that other chance that Afrofuturism offers its readers, viewers, listeners, and fans — a chance to reimagine another possible life, place, history, and being.
As CAAM’s press release describes, Pruitt “illuminates connections between spiritual traditions, fictional narratives, and technology and investigates how black identity can reside at the intersection of these arenas.” Through works like Rearview Mirror, Pruitt not only explores other futuristic possibilities, but also offers them as an experience for visitors.
And amidst all of this, Pruitt’s monumental black, red, and white graphite portraits on paper imbue the show with a strong sense of humanistic connection. In many ways, they are the strongest component of the show, not only because these larger-than-life portraits are positioned regularly throughout the room, but also because of the way that the subjects pull you in, with their eyes, gestures, stature, and presence. While almost none of the sitters look directly at the viewer, Pruitt has painted all so that they are fiercely present.
In Ascension (2017), a lone female figure is depicted in a fitted skirt and red shirt dotted with a UFO print. She stands astutely and strongly, looking upward. As the wall label says “Pruitt infuses his figures with a sense of divinity and empowerment.” Indeed. They are imbued, invigorated, and present as if sharing the space and air with us.
In Creator and Redeemer (2016), Pruitt depicts two women, one with her tattooed back facing viewers. At first glance, the tattoo’s mandorla-shape surrounding a female figure suggests Our Lady of Guadalupe, but instead the woman featured at the center is Harriet Tubman. And in Supreme Lover (2017), Pruitt depicts a young man with multiple pop culture references. With the title, he references John Coltrane’s album Love Supreme, and with the man’s accessories, he references Jesus Christ’s crown of thorns (embodied in a red rose crown) while his shirt depicts Birth of Earth, a Jean-Michel Basquiat drawing. Layered references like this are scattered throughout the show. Through them, Pruitt explores pop culture, Black culture, and religious imagery together as one unified and contemporaneous topic.
Besides cultural references throughout, there is also an exploration of the political. In Archangel (2015), Pruitt depicts a surveillance drone, with an uncharacteristically bright blue background. The drone carries a black shirt with the words “I can’t breathe” penned upon it. Alluding to Eric Garner’s last words in 2014, as he was fatally strangled in a chokehold by a New York police officer for allegedly selling illegal cigarette singles. This work offers both hope and despair, and a chance for healing. While the title might suggest the potential protection that a drone could offer as a sort of futuristic archangel, we also know from history that the cell phone footage of Garner’s death ultimately did not bring him justice. So is the possibility of angelic salvation or guardianship possible in Pruitt’s technological imagining? The drone is decorated with flowers and cigarettes, suggestive of offerings at an altar and ultimately, perhaps, this is what Pruitt offers to viewers — the space of mourning, remembrance, and healing.
In I Turned Myself into Myself (2018), you see a figure emerge from a series of gestural lines — as if looking from an almost-aerial perspective at the figure lying in bed. Only certain elements are detailed with charcoal shading — a foot sticking out of the sheets, a hand holding a comic book (the only item in color), and a head, emerging from a web of lines spun to indicate the body in bed under the suggestive lines of sheets. Works like this are magnetic and compelling. The title in combination with the work suggest the transformative nature of sleep, our healing subconscious, and the rebirth of each new day.
Robert Pruitt: Devotion is showing at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles through February 17, 2019. If you are looking for inspiration and awakening in the new year, this is the show for you.
An LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and educator, Ellen C. Caldwell reflects upon art, visual culture, identity, memory, and history for JSTOR Daily and New American Paintings. To see more of Ms. Caldwell’s work, visit eclaire.me.