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Robert Pruitt grew up surrounded by the dead. His bedroom was in the same building as his family's business — Jimmie Pruitt & Sons Funeral Home — but instead of focusing on the morbid, Pruitt became obsessed with comic books.
"We lived in the funeral home until I was about 9," Pruitt says. "I was pretty much into the arts early on and loved Marvel Comics. My favorite characters to draw were Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four."
Given that history, perhaps it's no surprise that the Houston-based artist's work now walks a fine line between the dark and the comic, from an M-16 rifle made of rainbow bubblegum to a man with a face-obscuring hoodie and a halo of pistols.
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Pruitt, whose work references African and African-American traditions while exploring the contradictions of modern black culture, makes his South Florida solo debut this month at North Miami's General Audience Presents, a new alternative space located across the street from the Museum of Contemporary Art.
"His work is very fresh and has not received that much exposure in Miami," says Lissette Garcia, the show's curator. "Robert's work deals with concepts of Afro-futurism, Afro-centricity, architectural tropes, and black popular culture in a very intelligent and powerful way."
Pruitt grew up in Houston's Fourth Ward, where his family's mortuary served mostly the area's large black community. Although Pruitt's elementary school friends were afraid to play at his house, his unusual upbringing didn't faze him. "I got what my family was doing, so I wasn't disturbed."
Instead, he concentrated on his drawing. After high school, he went to Texas Southern University, where he met artists Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Jamal Cyrus, and Kenya F. Evans. In 2002 they founded a conceptual collaborative called Otabenga Jones & Associates. The group — which takes its name from Ota Benga, an African Pygmy brought to the United States in 1904 and exhibited in zoos — has drawn acclaim and headlines.
They earned a spot in the Whitney Biennial in 2006 and have agitated for social justice in Houston, presenting an overturned police car recalling the riots and resistance movements of the 1960s, and protesting an African-art show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston with signs reading "My Blacknuss Is Bigger Than Your White Box" to decry the white collector's choice of works.
"You can say we explore alternative histories in African and black culture to investigate solutions that might have existed then but even now can effect change," the 37-year-old artist says.
If all of that sounds heavy, Pruitt's work on display in North Miami is anything but. His solo show, "Fun With Your New Head," takes its title from a sci-fi tome by Thomas M. Disch and depicts many of the artist's Houston friends in stunning portraits surrounded by symbols from ancient history and pop culture.
His Conté-crayon-and-charcoal drawings on hand-dyed paper convey the complexity of black identity through imagery of elements as disparate as sci-fi, hip-hop, comics, and past African-American political struggles.
"I'm influenced by Sun Ra, fashion imagery from contemporary culture, historical and old colonial portraits and photos, ethnographic imagery, and scientific and anthropological studies," Pruitt says.
In Fear of Black Planets, for example, Pruitt portrays his colleague, Houston-based artist Nathaniel Donnett, with what appears to be a spherical cage encasing his clean-shaven pate. Donnett gazes directly at the viewer through the bizarre metal enclosure while wearing jeans and the type of T-shirt students at historically black colleges might sport at a football game. But instead of the word Morehouse or Spellman across the front, it reads, "Sankore."
"Sankore is an ancient university in Africa," Pruitt explains. "It was founded by an Islamic woman centuries ago, and they taught the higher sciences including geometry and mathematics." The cage-looking helmet, meanwhile, references Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome.
In another work, singer Natasha Turner appears bored or lost in deep thought as she rests her cheek in the palm of her hand. Pruitt depicts his musician friend with a soaring Afro shaped like an Egyptian pyramid, suggesting that the woman clad in a sleeveless orange blouse is groaning under the burden of ancient history.
At General Audience's show, Pruitt's unusual process for preparing the surfaces of paper is also on display. "Before creating the drawings, I submerge the paper in a wooden tank I made and lined with plastic," he explains. "To get the background effect, I hand-dye the paper in a fabric dye or tea wash for a few hours before removing them from the liquid and plastering them directly on a wall in my studio to dry."
Pruitt has a talent for producing visual puns freighted with historical and psychological heft. Take that bubblegum assault rifle, which he says evokes "the violence in American society and its childlike obsession with guns," or his sculpture of a Molotov cocktail made from a Mrs. Butterworth's pancake syrup bottle to convey how pop-cultural depictions of aggression feed violent cycles.
Pruitt's show gives the impression the ancestral spirits that haunted the halls of his family's funeral home walk hand in hand with his coterie of friends and loved ones lining the gallery walls. "It's often a bit about African history and the community I live in and the paths crossing between them that inspire me," he says.