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Wards Matter

Robert Pruitt’s art vividly portrays the lives and dreams of the people who have long called Houston’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods home.

By December 2016Comments

Photograph by Cedric Angeles

In September, as Solange Knowles launched her chart-topping album A Seat at the Table, she took time out to give credit to a few of her key influences. In an interview with the music blog Stereogum, the sister of megastar Beyoncé listed, among other inspirations, a song by the R&B crooner D’Angelo, a book by the poet Claudia Rankine, and the art of her fellow Houstonian Robert Pruitt. “The way that he’s able to create these characters, to provoke the regality and the Afro-future aesthetic and synergy, that was something that I wanted to achieve throughout the duration of this album,” Knowles said of Pruitt’s work.

Pruitt is flattered by the shout-out. Though he’s received his share of acclaim—he appeared in the 2006 “Whitney Biennial,” in New York, and was named Artist of the Year at the 2013 Houston Art Fair—the size of his audience obviously pales in comparison to that of the Knowles sisters. “The world of music is so much more accessible than the art world,” he says. “I kind of envy that, so the connection to Solange is exciting. Maybe my work can make its way to people through that medium.”

This fall, the 41-year-old Pruitt is living in New Orleans, where he’s an artist in residence at the Joan Mitchell Center. On his studio walls hang larger-than-life portraits drawn in his signature style, conté-crayon figures on otherwise blank paper dyed with coffee or tea. Spend a while around his work, and it’s easy to sense the way his aesthetic rubbed off on Knowles. Don’t touch my hair / When it’s the feelings I wear, she sings on one much-discussed single. Don’t touch my crown / They say the vision I’ve found. One could imagine the same proud but wary sentiment emerging from the clenched mouths of several of Pruitt’s portrait subjects.

Fantastic, visionary hairstyles are one hallmark of Pruitt’s portraiture. Another is a “do not touch” glare on the part of his subjects. Pruitt compares his work to ethnographic photography: his subjects, all African or African Americans, are captured in poses that convey mistrust or apprehension at being viewed, and they tend to display exaggerated or unrealistic hairdos, clothing, and adornments. Often the portraits feature references to traditional African culture, hip-hop style, and contemporary art, and sometimes these nods go far beyond realism—an enormous Afro in the shape of a temple, a puffy vest made of raffia grass, a woman’s skirt in the same shape and shimmering hues as her hair.

“I think the portraits are a way for me to study my identity, or my own understanding of identity,” Pruitt says. These days, he’s particularly focused on using his portraits to capture and reflect the ephemeral culture of Houston’s Third and Fourth wards, where he grew up. He speaks with distress of how gentrification has fragmented those once-rooted black communities. His newer portraits—several of which were recently on display at the Gallery at UT-Arlington—summon a mood both aspirational and nostalgic, a documentary record of not just how people looked and carried themselves in a certain time and place, but also how they dreamed.

“I want to see if I can grab hold of this fuzzy thing that is growing up black in Houston,” Pruitt says, speaking specifically of his latest studio experiments. “It’s a series of unspoken rules that you live by. How you interact with people, things you say, don’t say. Things you believe. How you challenge those beliefs. A culture creates symbols, objects, rules. It creates itself, and people sort of live within that.”

Not Pruitt, however—or at least not in the same sense, not anymore. As of this September, he no longer lives in Houston. After a couple of months in New Orleans, he will join his fiancée in New York for a year. After that, who knows? Explaining his decision to leave, the typically friendly and engaging Pruitt casts his eyes down, like one of his portrait subjects. “Honestly, watching my neighborhood change—which, it’s a normal thing, it happens—I don’t want to see it,” he says. “It’s, like, I don’t want to be here for the full-blown version of this.”

As in his art, Houston runs deep in Pruitt’s family. His father, now 86, started in the funeral business at age 13 and has made arrangements for several generations of grieving Houstonians. Young Pruitt spent much of his childhood living above the family funeral home. In certain parts of town, he says, strangers still recognize him by his surname alone.

“I’ve never been a person to make a lot of plans, so I don’t remember thinking as a kid, ‘I’m going to be a funeral director,’ ” Pruitt says. “But I do think it was assumed as a primary option. But, man, I fell in love with comics so early.” As a kid, he spent hours poring over the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, a compilation of superheroes from the narrative worlds of the X-Men, Spider-Man, Thor, Black Panther, and beyond. That book’s illustrations employ a style that Pruitt would later adapt to his studio practice: a posed portrait, suggesting superhuman attributes, against a blank background.

Pruitt attended Texas Southern University hoping to prepare for a professional career as an in-house artist at Marvel. The TSU art department, however, had other ideas. Several decades earlier, in 1949, the North Carolina–born political muralist John T. Biggers had founded the department on an Afrocentric ideology that oriented his students, and soon the black Houston art community in general, around a deep consideration of traditional West African art and artifacts. His influence can still be felt across Houston today through his students and, increasingly, through his students’ students. Though Biggers had very recently retired when Pruitt began at TSU, Pruitt’s first drawing class was with Biggers’s protégé, Harvey Johnson.

“I struggled in that class,” Pruitt admits. “Drawing up to that point had been something I did for pleasure. And here was this person asking me to think about it in a much more serious way. Professor Johnson placed it within a historical and social context—like, what you’re doing is very serious, and it’s important to an entire community of people. You are basically reflecting back onto a people an understanding of their identity, of their history, of their place in the world. That was really difficult for me.”

Despite his initial self-doubt, Pruitt eventually warmed to the idea of using art as a way to represent and think through black experience in America. By the time he’d finished at TSU, he could no longer fathom the idea of compromising his artistic practice with the corporate aims of an employer like Marvel. “When I’m in this room, in this studio, alone, the only rules that really exist are the ones that I set for myself,” he says. “That’s the thing that took me away from comics. I could still explore the things that interested me in comics and have complete autonomy.”

Pruitt built on the Biggers tradition by melding West African symbolism with his beloved Marvel-style comic-book portraiture. He also saw a natural parallel with the way masks, ceremonial costumes, and religious objects function in traditional society and the way modern-day hip-hop culture transforms clothing and other self-ornament into statements of affinity, community values, and revolutionary ideals.

“He’s created a unique body of work that derives from his connection to the way black folks of the hip-hop generation have taken to defining themselves through adornment, hair, and fashion,” says Harlem-based writer Greg Tate, recognized as a “godfather of hip-hop journalism” by The Source magazine. “That generation has taken leaps in terms of thinking about blackness as something not defined by your immediate environment but by your vision—by your capacity to ‘imagineer,’ as I like to say, a separate and more marvelous reality, and to embody it as well.” Tate recently chose Pruitt’s 2011 drawing Stunning Like My Daddy for the cover of his latest anthology of music and art criticism, Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (Duke University Press).

Pruitt, for his part, prefers not to overexplain or overthink his work. But he agrees that the Biggers school of thought has stuck with him to the extent that he’s committed to reflecting and uplifting his community through his work. “I do try to aim it at a black audience and present a type of work that has—it sounds cheesy—a positive affirmation for that audience,” he says.

At the same time, Pruitt acknowledges that, particularly when his work reaches a broader public, not everyone—black or white or any other color—will feel affirmed by or even admire his proud, resilient images. Hence the impassivity of his portrait subjects. “How they look back at the audience or look through the audience is about them having a sort of protective stance as they are being visually consumed,” Pruitt says. “Whatever baggage you bring to the work, it’s disrupted.”

These days, to make art for a black big-city audience, or specifically a black Houston audience, is to speak to a community undergoing a seismic disruption. Pruitt’s latest preoccupations find him in tune with another song off Knowles’s album, “Where Do We Go,” which can be heard as an elegy to the Third Ward, where Knowles grew up: This used to be home / This used to be what we know. . . / Where do we go from here?

Pruitt says he’s amazed by the way certain neighborhoods of New Orleans remind him of the Fourth Ward of his youth. The difference is that in New Orleans the neighborhoods feel more or less preserved, whereas the Fourth Ward—a historically black area once known as “Freedmen’s Town”—is almost unrecognizable to him now, having gentrified steadily since the nineties. “One of the problems with Houston is it does not preserve its history,” Pruitt says. “Everything’s being constantly torn down and rebuilt in really sort of plastic ways.”

A few years ago, Pruitt worked on a collaborative project for the nonprofit organization Voices Breaking Boundaries that involved temporarily gluing hundreds of historical photographs onto the streets of the Fourth Ward. Many of these photos were of the neighborhood as it existed in the seventies and eighties. At the end of the project, when Pruitt was helping to pull the photos off the pavement, a man appeared from a recently constructed town house to confront Pruitt about what he saw as an unsightly mess. “He seemed oblivious to the fact that we were in the process of cleaning it all up,” Pruitt says. “I don’t imagine he had any interest in the images or the history they conveyed.” What made the exchange even more charged for Pruitt was that the house the man had emerged from stood on the site of Pruitt’s childhood home, which had been razed years earlier. Pruitt found himself arguing with a man who was literally occupying the space where he’d grown up about whether or not he had the right to make art there.

“It was his house,” Pruitt acknowledges. “He paid for it. But—and I don’t want to say ‘but,’ because I get it; it’s his property—my perspective was, this was my home.”

Pruitt’s personal experience is an extreme version of a widespread phenomenon, Tate says. “This is something, from a cultural standpoint, that black people all over the country are confronting now, of having these segregated, marooned, off-the-coast-of-America spaces suddenly invaded and disintegrated and transformed into spaces that are less and less hospitable to them,” he says. “I think for someone who’s about detailed observation of that community the way Pruitt is, it’s specific to that being an unmolested, contained-energy space for black life. And those things start to shift and fade away as neighborhoods become gentrified.”

Tate suggests that Pruitt’s upcoming move to Harlem, a mecca of black American culture, may “recharge his muse” and reinvigorate the affirmational aspects of his practice. Wherever he winds up in the long term, Pruitt says, his artistic eye remains trained on the creative soul of black Houston.

Looking ahead to where his work might go next, Pruitt is so intent on capturing the vital and fragile roots of the Houston culture that reared him that he’s considering moving entirely away from the African statuary and symbolism that has marked his work for over a decade. “But what do I replace that with?” he asks. “What are the ritualized, precious objects that black people create? There aren’t a lot of those things that hold the same kind of social power. Because black people in America, our history is not built around getting to create material goods.”

This question is at the crux of Pruitt’s practice, from his early days at TSU to today. How do you distill and celebrate a culture that is only half-autonomous within the United States, that so often finds itself exiled, displaced, or otherwise in need of reinvention? To reimagine black identity against the backdrop of gentrification requires the fortitude and X-ray vision of a superhero, and Pruitt is trying to answer the call.

“We have our bodies, we have how we look, how people respond to us,” he says. “We have dances, what we do with our hair. And those are the things I still refer to and go back to. But there’s another thing that is intangible, that I cannot put my finger on to describe, and it’s very particular to Houston. It’s a thing you can just sort of feel.”

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