The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), unveils a new installation by Robert Pruitt (born 1975), inaugurating a new series of annual commissions that engages artists to create large-scale banners to be hung from the glass ceiling of the I. M. Pei-designed Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. Born in Houston and based in New York, Pruitt is best known for masterful, oversized figurative drawings that are embedded with cultural symbols of Africa and the African Diaspora. For his Banner Project at the Museum, the artist has chosen to depict three Bostonians who represent three generations of the local community: Ithaca College student and former MFA intern Sofia Meadows-Muriel; community leader and advocate Jacqueline Cummings-Furtado; and Brenda Lee, who has worked as a security officer at the Museum for nearly 40 years. A central element in each diptych of portraits—one on each side of the 11-foot-high banners—is a set of 19th-century ceramic face jugs from the MFA’s collection, some of the earliest surviving aesthetic objects produced by African Americans. The three pieces, titled Birth and Rebirth and Rebirth (2019), Cut Piece (2019) and Red Starbursts (2019), also reference other works in the collection, from an ancient Egyptian beadnet dress to mid-20th-century wrappers made and worn by Yoruba women in Nigeria. Curated by Reto Thüring, Beal Family Chair, Department of Contemporary Art, and Akili Tommasino, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, The Banner Project: Robert Pruitt will be unveiled at an MFA Late Nites celebration on October 25, 2019 and remain on view through fall 2020.
“Developing this project with the museum and its staff has been a fulfilling experience. The opportunity to deeply explore the collection, work with members of the Boston community and reproduce my drawings at such an immense scale is an exciting prospect and I look forward to the final unveiling,” said Pruitt.
Pruitt visited the MFA twice in the spring of 2019: first to explore works in the MFA’s collection, learn about the Museum’s history, and draw inspiration for his drawings, and then to meet and capture photographs of the three community members who would serve as the models in original drawings that are reproduced on the banners. The Bostonians were connected to the artist by the MFA’s Learning and Community Engagement Division, based on Pruitt’s desire to depict prominent members of the local community.
On one side of each banner, each figure holds a face jug from about 1860. Although made in the Edgefield district of South Carolina by enslaved potters who produced functional stoneware sold primarily to white customers, these jugs were not commercial projects. They are exceptionally rare examples of objects made by enslaved African American for their own community and directly link to West African practices, possibly used for spiritual purposes. For Pruitt, these objects represent an identity and culture in transition. Throughout the portraits, the artist also references other works in the collection:
- In Birth and Rebirth and Rebirth (2019), a young woman wears a quilt with patches of starbursts and suns from a pictorial quilt (1895–98) made by Harriet Powers—a masterpiece of evocative storytelling and the expression of faith in divine justice. For this piece, Pruitt also reflected on the emotive representation of fire, water and death in Slave Ship (1840) by J. M. W. Turner, as well as, in the artist’s own words, “the transitional impact of the Middle Passage in destroying and recreating a racial identity.” On one side of the banner, the figure pours water from a face jug and on the other, she holds a gas can—symbols for creation and destruction.
- On one side of Red Starbursts (2019), the figure wears an Egyptian beadnet dress (Old Kingdom, Dynasty 4, reign of Khufu, 2551–2528 BCE) and holds a face jug up to her ear, echoing the character in Elihu Vedder’s Questioner of the Sphinx (1863). On the other side, she wears contemporary clothing with symbols from the Powers quilt.
- Cut Piece (2019) takes its title from a 1964 performance work by Yoko Ono, during which the artist invited audience members to cut away sections of her clothing. For Pruitt, this reference is “an attempt to point out a binary positioning within a museum setting.” The model, Brenda Lee, who is charged with the protection of objects and people at the MFA, is depicted here as self-protecting, wrapped in various patterns of adire, indigo-dyed cloths made by Yoruba women in southwestern Nigeria, and carrying cutting tools herself.
The banners will be unveiled on October 25 at the MFA Late Nites, a seasonal after-hours celebration at the Museum that connects visitors to art, culture and community through programming created in collaboration with local artists and partners. The Banner Project: Robert Pruitt is part of a larger reinstallation of the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, which also includes the exhibitions Contemporary Art: Five Propositions, highlighting recently acquired and rarely shown works from the collection, and Read My Lips, presenting four videos that consider the female voice.
About the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Founded on February 4, 1870, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), stands on the historic homelands of the Massachusett people, a site which has long served as a place of meeting and exchange among different nations. The Museum opened its doors to the public on July 4, 1876—the nation’s centennial—at its original location in Copley Square. Over the next several decades, the MFA’s collection and visitation grew exponentially, and in 1909, the Museum moved to its current home on Huntington Avenue. Today, the MFA houses a global collection encompassing nearly 500,000 works of art, from ancient to contemporary, and welcomes approximately 1.2 million visitors each year to celebrate the human experience through art as well as innovative exhibitions and programs. In 2017, Matthew Teitelbaum, the 11th director in the Museum’s history, unveiled MFA 2020, a three-year Strategic Plan that articulated a forward-looking vision for the Museum to become an institution of the moment and more connected to the community. The spirit of collaboration and engagement at the core of MFA 2020 has been brought to life over the past three years through the implementation of more than 50 initiatives, the full slate of which will be realized during the Museum’s 150th anniversary year.