In Robert Pruitt’s portrait "Mama," the identity of the sitter is at once hidden and defined by the objects on and around her. Pruitt combines elements from the history of African art and culture, allowing the subject to straddle both modernity and its origins.
The woman in this work casually sits in a modern chair, her face covered by a cloth or shirt whose red letters spell out the word “Sankoré.” Sankoré is a university founded in the 1400s in Timbuktu, Mali, and it is one of the oldest universities in the world. The design of this shirt mimics that of the modern college T-shirt, proudly proclaiming its wearer’s affiliation with a specific school. The woman also wears a Gelede mask on her head, from the Gelede festival held annually by the Yoruba peoples in Nigeria and Benin celebrating the spiritual power of women as mothers and elders. This link to motherhood is further emphasized by the woman’s shirt, with its image of Barkley L. Hendricks’s painting "Lawdy Mama" (1969). The title of Pruitt’s work may partly derive from this earlier painting, while also referring to ancestry, birthplace, and a source of knowledge.