Afrofuturist Visions: Robert Pruitt’s Enlist! Prints

By Sophie Lynford
March 2, 2022
This print shows a three-quarter view of a Black person wearing a red jumpsuit. They carry a helmet, binoculars, and a contraption resembling a jetpack. They stand before a blue sky with white clouds. Six airplanes travel through the sky. Below the figure, bold red text reads in capital letters: “Enlist!/Homecoming Mothership Defense Squadron.”
2018.33.47 Robert Pruitt, American, Star Pilot, 2012. Offset lithograph on white wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Margaret Fisher Fund, 2018.33.47. © Robert Pruitt.

Two eye-catching prints by contemporary artist Robert Pruitt—Star Pilot and Chief Mechanic—are currently on view in the Harvard Art Museums exhibition Prints from the Brandywine Workshop and Archives: Creative Communities.

Bold red text at the bottom of both works exhorts viewers to enlist. Above this directive, a lone figure occupies each composition’s foreground, head tilted slightly upward, gaze fixed on something beyond the picture plane. The figures’ dress, their hairstyles, and the objects they hold, combined with the prints’ additional text—“Homecoming Mothership Defense Squadron”—align these works with imagery and themes associated with Afrofuturism. Often characterized as a transdisciplinary movement or creative mode, Afrofuturism has been embraced by artists, musicians, activists, and intellectuals to envision a world in which African-descended peoples forge culturally and technologically advanced societies.

Pruitt created these lithographs during a 2012 residency at the Brandywine Workshop and Archives, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that offers arts programming and sponsors printmaking residencies for practicing artists. Over the course of his career, Pruitt has produced varied artworks across media, including video, sculpture, and comic books. His chief output, however, has been large-scale, multimedia figural drawings on paper. Many of his recent works, such as Geledé Garveyite (2020), are on paper that is hand-dyed, often with coffee. Atop these supports, he combines charcoal, pastel, and conté, which is a crayon made from powdered graphite or charcoal mixed with clay. Blending elements drawn from hip-hop culture, science fiction, and comic books, Pruitt executes sensitive and incisive portraits of friends, family, and community members. His subjects often occupy most of the page and appear before an evacuated background. In this way, Pruitt offers open-ended narratives about his sitters—they could be anywhere in any era, simultaneously inhabiting past, present, and future. 

A white man in the guise of Uncle Sam, with white hair and a white goatee, stands in profile with his legs spread wide. He wears red and white striped paints, a white shirt, and a blue vest. He is rolling up his sleeves. Behind him is a large yellow circle and a bald eagle. Behind that is a background of blue with white stars and red and white stripes. His hat and jacket lie crumpled on the ground below him. Bold red text above him reads: “Defend/Your Country.” Below him, bold white text in capital letters on a blue background reads: “Enlist Now in the/United States Army.”
Thomas Woodburn, American, Defend Your Country: Enlist Now in the United States Army, 1940. University of Minnesota Libraries.

While Pruitt’s drawings are often devoid of text and background, the Brandywine lithographs include both, insertions that aid the viewer in interpretation. The “ENLIST!” text recalls recruitment posters distributed by the U.S. government during World Wars I and II. One 1940 poster by Thomas Woodburn directs viewers to “Defend Your Country” by enlisting in the U.S. army. The charge is issued by Uncle Sam, jacket and hat tossed aside, sleeves cuffed, poised to stride out of the frame and presumably into battle. Woodburn further heightens the image’s nationalist messaging by incorporating the jingoistic bald eagle and stars and stripes into the background.

In Chief Mechanic and Star Pilot, Pruitt repurposes and subverts the visual language Woodburn and his contemporaries deployed 70 years earlier. While Pruitt’s use of a red, white, and blue palette aesthetically links his images to the wartime recruitment posters, the similarities end there. His mechanic and pilot recruit not for the U.S. military, but for the “Homecoming Mothership Defense Squadron.” The mechanic’s super-sized wrench, the pilot’s spacesuit-like attire, and the reference to “the mothership” together evoke an alternate reality rich with Afrofuturist overtones. “That sense of the unnatural, the super, the extra-human possibility,” as Pruitt has explained, is critical to his artistic vision: “I want that to be part of my practice as a way to describe what we could be.”[1] 

Two prints are side by side. The first print shows a three-quarter view of a Black man with a goatee. He is dressed in white and red clothes and carries tools, including a large wrench. He stands against a sky rendered in two tones of blue. Below him, bold red text reads in capital letters: “Mechanics, Electricians, Hackers, Rappers, Artists/Dancers, Shooters, 3PT Specialists, etc. Apply Within./Enlist!/Homecoming Mothership Defense Squadron.” The second print shows a three-quarter view of a Black person wearing a red jumpsuit. They carry a helmet, binoculars, and a contraption resembling a jetpack. They stand before a blue sky with white clouds. Six airplanes travel through the sky. Below the figure, bold red text reads in capital letters: “Enlist!/Homecoming Mothership Defense Squadron.”
2018.33.47

Robert Pruitt, American, Star Pilot, 2012. Offset lithograph on white wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Margaret Fisher Fund, 2018.33.47. © Robert Pruitt.
Two prints are side by side. The first print shows a three-quarter view of a Black man with a goatee. He is dressed in white and red clothes and carries tools, including a large wrench. He stands against a sky rendered in two tones of blue. Below him, bold red text reads in capital letters: “Mechanics, Electricians, Hackers, Rappers, Artists/Dancers, Shooters, 3PT Specialists, etc. Apply Within./Enlist!/Homecoming Mothership Defense Squadron.” The second print shows a three-quarter view of a Black person wearing a red jumpsuit. They carry a helmet, binoculars, and a contraption resembling a jetpack. They stand before a blue sky with white clouds. Six airplanes travel through the sky. Below the figure, bold red text reads in capital letters: “Enlist!/Homecoming Mothership Defense Squadron.”
2018.33.46

Robert Pruitt, American, Chief Mechanic, 2012. Offset lithograph on white wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Margaret Fisher Fund, 2018.33.46. © Robert Pruitt.

Pruitt explores in these lithographs the aspiration to attain those “extra-human” or superhuman faculties, an ambition frequently at the center of Afrofuturist narratives. Though the label “Afrofuturism” was not coined until the early 1990s by cultural critic Mark Dery, its tenets permeated popular culture decades earlier. From the arenas of music, literature, and painting, Sun Ra, George Clinton, Octavia Butler, and Jean-Michel Basquiat introduced audiences to sounds, stories, and imagery inflected with liberatory Afrocentricity and elements of science fiction and fantasy. This artistic output critiqued contemporary and historical oppression while also, in Dery’s formulation, appropriating “images of technology” to envision “a prosthetically enhanced future” for African diasporic communities, including descendants of enslaved peoples.[2] 

One of the most recognizable and potent symbols born of Afrofuturist art is the mothership. In 1975, the musical group Parliament, led by George Clinton—who also directed its companion group, Funkadelic—released the album Mothership Connection. The cover pictured Clinton stepping out of a flying saucer. As Joshua Bird has noted, this staged image was among the first representations of a Black person in space. Clinton understood his intervention as a radical act: “we [Parliament and Funkadelic] had put Black people in situations nobody ever thought they would be in, like the White House. I figured another place you wouldn’t think Black people would be was in outer space.”[3] It would be five years before the first person of African heritage, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, a Cuban cosmonaut, traveled to space. 

Parliament and Funkadelic performed together as a collective during this period (as Parliament-Funkadelic). In their live shows, a spaceship—the “mothership,” now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American Culture and History—would descend on stage and Clinton would emerge in head-to-toe spacesuit-like costumes. Though Clinton and his bands had long released songs imbued with themes from science fiction, Mothership Connection blended space-age iconography with lyrics advocating Black liberation. 

Pruitt engages mothership mythology to envision a world in which people of African descent band together to herald a Mothership Defense Squadron. The mechanic and pilot each bear the tools of their trades. Additional text in Chief Mechanic welcomes recruits with diverse skillsets, commitments, and interests. Beyond those with utilitarian expertise, “hackers, rappers, artists, dancers, shooters, 3pt specialists” are encouraged to “Apply within.” But where, precisely, “within” can be found remains an open question. The setting is certainly otherworldly, with the sensation of a diaphanous atmosphere amplified by Pruitt’s dappled, ombre skies—an effect he attained by applying two tones of blue spray paint to the mylar sheets from which his lithographic plates were produced. Ultimately, the prints achieve what Pruitt has set out to realize across his oeuvre, responding to what he sees “lacking in many forms of Black representation.” By drawing on a wealth of visual symbols as well as the contributions of Afrofuturism’s forebearers, Pruitt collapses space and time to, in his own words, “string together the breadth of the Black experience and diaspora to create a sense of commonality and humanity.”[4]

 

Sophie Lynford is the Rousseau Curatorial Fellow in European Art at the Harvard Art Museums.

 

[1] Robert Pruitt, in “Robert Pruitt,” Salon 94.

[2] Mark Dery, “Black to the Future: Interviews of Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, ed. Mark Dery (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994), 180.

[3] George Clinton, quoted in Robert Hicks, “Turn This Mutha Out,” Scene Magazine (Sept. 13, 2006); Joshua Bird, “Climbing Aboard the Mothership: An Afrofuturistic Reading of Parliament-Funkadelic,” Occam’s Razor 3 (6) (2013): 32.

[4] Robert Pruitt, in “Robert Pruitt,” Tamarind Institute.