The Revolutionizing, Hypnotic, Afro-futuristic Art of Nina Chanel Abney and Robert Pruitt

A successful art piece is captivating, intriguing, mesmerizing, and most importantly meaningful. On display at the California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles are such pieces, both different in their elements but vividly captivating. Until January 20, 2019, Nina Chanel Abney’s exhibit Royal Flush was on display to entice onlookers. You can still see Robert Pruitt’s cosmic work until February 17, 2019, just 50 feet from Abney’s display.

Through various color and design elements, Nina Chanel Abney and Robert Pruitt capture the attention of spectators, having them bear witness to the struggles and strengths of the black community. Both provide deeply different emotions, with Nina Chanel (America 1982) using vibrant color and shapes to create feelings of humor and discomfort. Robert Pruitt (America 1964) on the other hand, gives feelings of wandering and hope for the viewer through massive scale and color usage. Though different as their styles might be, both these artists use scale, color, symbolism, focus, and variety in their art work to give a thorough head rush of wonder to their viewers.

Nina Chanel Abney is an African American Artist based in New York City. Born in Harvey, IL in 1982, she remained in Illinois during her education and upbringing as a painter. She obtained her MFA in 2007 from Parson’s School of Design. Alongside her exhibit Royal Flush was that of Robert Pruitt, a 54 year old black artist from Washington D.C.. His exhibition, entitled Devotion, is deeply moving and consists of different mediums such as sculptures, as does most of his other artwork. Pruitt is also a talented graduate from Parson’s School of Design, having graduated from there after moving from his hometown of Rockville, MD..

Abney’s work that was seen at CAAM in Los Angeles is contemporary, uniquely visual and politically powerful. Nina Chanel Abney makes use of color compliments, most prominently blue and orange, in her work to attract immediate attention. Paintings suck you in into the world she has created and made an ambiguous political and artistic statement on. For example, in Nina Chanel Abney, Forbidden Fruit, 2009, (Acrylic on canvas) 67” x 77 ½”, genderless beings sit in a forbidden field of psychedelic mushrooms, watermelons, poisonous frogs, and amidst a blue and orange background.

Though at first humourous, the painting evokes feelings of discomfort, yet remains relevant and contemporary. The statements Nina Chanel Abney makes pertain to the modern day mysticism of pop culture and their role in American society. She has said she wants her work to be humorous at first glance, yet difficult to clearly interpret and digest.

Though all her paintings use color, variety, and various religious undertones, most notable is her use of sex symbolism such as free doves and phalluses. In Nina Chanel Abney, Null and Void, 2009 (Acrylic on canvas) 77.5” x 45,” the painting itself is colorful, using compliments of the colors purple-yellow, and red-green. The painting is also humorous at first glance, yet uses symbolism and variety of phallus and dove shapes, as well as continuity and movement to tell the story of Michael Jackson’s rise and fall. Painted in 2009, Null and Void is the epitome of the pop culture statement Abney works so hard to project.

Through strong color combinations, the painting is aesthetically pleasing. It still successfully portrays itself in the way of a tragic renaissance painting, with the eye moving from genderless being to genderless being, finally making its way down to the dead body in a black and white checkered sheet. Could this very humor serve to harshly criticize society’s mistreatment of arguably the best black performer in history? The painting makes a strong argument for this.

Abney’s works are striking, using variety and color to show even the most political statements in a bold manner. Such is the case for her paintings Untitled (IXI), 2015 (Unique ultrachrome pigmented paint, acrylic, acrylic and spray paint on canvas) and Untitled (XXXXXX), 2015 (Unique ultrachrome pigmented paint, acrylic, acrylic and spray paint on canvas), reversing political roles and skin tone showing black police officers verbally and physically fighting white men. A prominent follower of the black lives matter movement, Abney’s paintings show variety and symbols of doves, peace, X’s and again bold yellow color to draw the viewer in to the anxiousness that surrounds the black community today.

Robert Pruitt’s artwork is hope put onto coffee stained paper. Moving from Abney’s to Pruitt’s work is somewhat of a culture shock, yet the feelings of uplifting the black community remain the same. In Pruitt’s work, we see the use of scale in his larger than life portraits of people. Religion and symbolism is also used in Pruitt’s work, as he uses symbols such as those of galaxies and planets to exalt the African American people in his work to the roles of priestesses and God’s.

An example of this is seen in his work Robert Pruitt, Creator and Redeemer, 2016 (Conté, pastel, colored pencil and charcoal, tea dyed paper), 84” × 60,” in his Devotion exhibit. The drawing shows what appear to be two normal black women conversing with stern looks on their faces. Their tattoos on their skin appear as arbitrary, and upon close inspection reveal a religious Virgin Mary as Harriet Tubman and NK-33, a former soviet rocket, inked on their bodies. The symbolism, typography and calligraphy of the tattoo design, and the element of bold red color that stands out in the women’s clothing all work to transform these two regular girls into angels of hope for the black community.

Similarly, Robert Pruitt uses the bold color red to symbolize power, lust, the Blood Gang, blood ties, and strength that are all pillars of culture in the black community. Through the use of red color saturation, scale of his paintings, and a variety of elements of symbolism, Robert Pruitt makes his intention of exalting the African American community clear. The music he chose for his exhibit was also impactful, riddled with African chanting as well as a soundtrack fit for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Robert Pruitt’s final painting Rearview Mirror, 2018 (Charcoal & conte on coffee stained paper) 60” × 84,” located in the back of his exhibit, is a black void with a single, far away blue Earth. This focus and point of view from far away puts the viewer in the seat of an escaping astronaut. Beautiful and breathtaking, this painting sums up the statement and work of Robert Pruitt that centers around Afro-futurism.

The red in his paintings and popular icons such as the clothing brand “Supreme” are present in Pruitt’s work, with the boldness of the color working to create a statement of power and self imposed exile from this planet. Pruitt’s Afro-futurism model hopes one day his powerful community will escape to a universe where African Americans are the highest power, present in even the cosmos. This is not the case in a still racially divided modern America. Pruitt wants his people to be seen as the strong figures they are, be seen as angels and travelers, and show his people that there is still hope for moving into a better world.

Both artists Nina Chanel Abney and Robert Pruitt create intense experiences for their viewers. Both are African American artists looking to use their talents to raise awareness of brutality, exalt the black community, and spread knowledge of this through the art community. Nina Chanel’s Royal Flush art collection is bold and hypnotizing, using color, variety, and symbolism to attract an audience to spread its message. Robert Pruitt emphasizes his people’s power through massive scale, bold red color, and even music in his Devotion collection to give hope and rise to the Afrofuturism of tomorrow. It is a joy and dizzying adventure to experience both pieces, and the message and feelings of wanting to see a better life and improve the experience of the black community remains.

Photographer. Former Sailor. EMT/Psych worker. Poet. Captivated from the start.

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