Robert Pruitt’s work pulls so many different threads

Acclaimed Afrofuturist at Zora Neale Hurston Museum through July


through July 31 | Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, 227 E. Kennedy Blvd., Eatonville | 407-647-3307 |

The museum, a tiny but dignified box, shines in the sun along West Kennedy Boulevard. It’s about the only official institution recognizing Eatonville’s homegirl Zora Neale Hurston, who happens to be one of America’s best writers ever. Inside, exhibits run for months, like they used to before museums got greedy for constant attention; and it gives the art time to settle in and get comfortable on the walls. Robert Pruitt’s Visual Thinking is a rare treat here in town, an exhibition from an acclaimed Whitney Biennial artist with something to say about the black experience that is at once funny, deep and loaded with multiple threads of text.

Pruitt’s wry photography show opens with a handful of images he brought from a collaboration with Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop in 2011. Africa’s matriarchal heritage, Pruitt reminds us, is latent in Black America: In these photos a group of defiant-looking women poses gripping guns, sometimes in 19th-century drawing rooms, but always with a certain dignity and power. Coupled with these images are others of men absurdly masked. The man in “Beretta” sits with his white hoodie zipped up over his face, fabric handguns bristling off his head, a drum machine on his lap. He plays, while the women rule.

Eight large photographs take you into the rest of the gallery: African-Americans struggling with their identity, often hiding their faces, seem lost among pop-culture heroes, black-culture heroes, glitter and fancy tire rims. These figures are almost devoid of positive self-identity. In “Bail Out,” a dad wearing a football helmet and shades clutches a baby to his breast – swaddled in fiberglass insulation, that most itchy and un-soft of blanketry. The baby, upon closer inspection, is a blank-eyed, full-lipped, jade-hued miniature Mayan statue. Its evocation of lost hope for the future is deeply tragic, the father negated, the baby negated; a somber melancholy descends upon the viewer, leavened only slightly by the endearing pose of the grinning dad in his favorite team’s headgear.

These figures mix laughter in with the message: “Lamphead” wears a lampshade and a crazy bouquet of flowers as if she’s never tardy for the party, yet the lampshade somehow negates her as well, mutes her voice and wipes out her face. Portraits without faces can suggest new identities, as Pruitt alludes in his artist’s statement, but this may be a ruse. Cheap glittery fabric, a lampshade, an old black jacket – these are identities no one really seeks.

The fabric that recurs in these photographs may be the best way to think about these pieces. Pruitt’s work has so many different threads of meaning – some beautiful, many noble, but many more bitter and frustrated. Together they weave an urgent message and seek to cover over a gap. Robert Pruitt uses the universal language of visual art to try to close the gap, but it is incumbent upon all of us to read the messages here. They are offered in the spirit of wisdom and intelligence, to break through the fog of intolerance and unite all.

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