Ama Codjoe on Robert Pruitt

By Ama CodjoeJanuary 10, 2024

Ama Codjoe on Robert Pruitt
1:1 invites writers to reflect on a single work of art with focus, care, and imagination to expand how we view, receive, and write about art. 1:1 is organized and edited by Annie Buckley.

Just as the title A Song Travelers sounds exactly right and slightly off-key—the missing “of” with which the artwork’s title would read A Song of Travelers; the noun-making “-er” without which it would read A Song Travels—viewing Robert Pruitt’s work, one gets the sense that something is amiss and everything is as it should be. Coming across a Pruitt figure is like sitting across from a woman on city transit who you slowly begin to understand is carrying a magenta parrot on the crown of her head. There is a strangeness to the work expressed most consistently in Pruitt’s use of juxtaposition. And yet, the surprise of noticing two swimming catfish draped across the shoulders of a seated male figure is not shocking or abrupt; staring at the drawing, its composition and details, I feel I am somehow prepared to absorb the fantastical elements of Pruitt’s imagination.

One reason the otherworldliness of A Song Travelers may, to the spectator, feel grounded in this world could be the fact that Pruitt based the drawing on a photograph from a family reunion. The 17 or more figures of the gigantic drawing are familiar and familial in their body language and posture. Even the alien-like creature, the figure seated in what feels like the center of the semicircle, is not estranged by its strangeness. In fact, the alien-like figure is arguably the focal point of the drawing, though my eye is most drawn to the woman with letterman jackets piled on her head and shoulders. The coats hang from her torso as if her wide stance is a sturdy rack. The color palette of the many, multicolored coats—including the yellow found nowhere else in the artwork—draws my eye to the left side of the drawing, toward this full-bodied, muscular figure whose gaze is slightly different from the others.

Pruitt draws all the human figures, even the doll-like infant seated on the ground, with slightly open mouths, as though the characters are mid-speech or mid-song. They are a congregation. Certainly, the drawing’s travelers have congregated across time. Some figures seem reminiscent of the past—the soldier, the Black Freemason, the two women with ghostly pale flesh dressed in 19th-century or 1950s attire; others of the present—the woman wearing a black sleeveless dress with neon-colored stripes, or the shirtless man at the right edge of the artwork; and still others—the drawing’s only child and the alien-like being—of the future. The audience completes the circle by crowding around the drawing, deciphering its presence in an exhibition exploring the Great Migration. In the context of A Movement in Every Direction, the artwork makes me miss my Southern grandparents, and I wonder: Who are the singers and travelers in my lineage? Where have we come from? Where are we going next?


A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration is co-organized by the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art. The exhibition is co-curated by Ryan N. Dennis, former chief curator and artistic director of the Center for Art & Public Exchange, Mississippi Museum of Art, and Jessica Bell Brown, curator and department head for Contemporary Art, Baltimore Museum of Art. The CAAM presentation is organized by Essence Harden, visual arts curator.

LARB Contributor

Ama Codjoe is the author of Bluest Nude (2022), winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and finalist for both the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Poetry and the Paterson Poetry Prize; and Blood of the Air (2020), winner of the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. Codjoe is the 2023 poet-in-residence at the Guggenheim Museum, and the winner of a 2023 Whiting Award.


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