Deborah Roberts - I'm

An exhibition of artworks
by Deborah Roberts
conceived and organized 
by The Contemporary Austin

Jamal, 2020
Mixed media collage on canvas
65 x 45 inches
Currently on view

Art+Practice

In collaboration with the California African American Museum
Los Angeles, California

March 19 – August 20, 2022

Fighting the ISM, 2019
Fighting the ISM, 2019
Mixed media collage on canvas
72 x 60 inches
The unseen, 2020
The unseen, 2020
Mixed media collage on canvas
65 x 45 inches

I hope that sixty years from now, when people look at this work, they can say, “That. . .   represents the racism from a time that we don’t know anymore.”

Deborah Roberts in Conversation with Zoé Whitley

Deborah Roberts: I’m, Exhibition video by Arts+Labor

To see, to be seen, and to live equally together

Darren Walker, President of The Ford Foundation

Through her work, Roberts magnifies the hidden and often misappropriated stories of Black childhood. In this country, Black children are routinely condemned and denied the presumption of innocence commonly afforded to other children. Before they come of age, forces of inequality, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness conspire together to degrade and demonize their existence. Roberts, as a visual artist, is acutely aware of this tragic reality and actively works to subvert it.

She imbues her images of Black children with the layers of grace, dignity, and nuance they deserve. She asks all of us to see them—for, as she has said, “Once you see me as human, then we can coexist equally.”

THE DUTY OF DISOBEDIENCE, 2020
The duty of disobedience, 2020
Mixed media collage on canvas
72 x 100 inches

Reclaiming the ‘I’

Heather Pesanti, Chief Curator & Director of Curatorial Affairs of The Contemporary Austin

The exhibition signifies a homecoming of sorts for the artist in the course of her long career, as it is her first solo museum exhibition in her home state of Texas. It also represents the most complete gathering of her work to date and reflects a moment when the artist’s practice has developed and changed in its engagement with space and subject matter, in increasingly complex and visually striking ways. The fluctuations of bodily scale in her new works speak to heightened interrogations of figurative space and questions about the ways in which Black bodies move through the world. The luminous colors and patterns impart an embrace of exuberant colorist expression, along with a probing of the attention—both positive and negative—that fashion and costume can bring to the wearer. The fragments assembled into these distinctive collages call for nuanced and intimate interpretations of identity based on the artist’s experiences while simultaneously emphasizing the violence and trauma committed against Black youths. Indeed, there is an urgency of suffering beneath these vibrant exteriors. Roberts described her perception of this recent evolution, noting:

I do feel like my work is changing and I don’t know why. I think it has changed probably as I have changed. . . . And it’s fracturing, the work is fracturing. I can see it when I lay out my collages, I can see it when I think about what I want to talk about and I can either allow it to happen or I can control it. I think that’s where I’m at right now, trying to figure out which is the right thing to do with that.

By juxtaposing approachability and beauty with underlying trauma and violence, the works in I’m  can be perceived as gestures of artistic defiance. As Black feminist scholar bell hooks described, “loving blackness as political resistance transforms our ways of looking and being, and thus creates the conditions necessary for us to move against the forces of domination and death and reclaim black life.” Roberts’s practice repossesses the experience of Black childhood and identity through affirmation, vulnerability, and empowerment, provoking difficult and potentially curative conversations around the essential human right to equality—in this way, reclaiming both the “I” and the collective “we.”

Cock-a-doodle-do, 2020
Cock-a-doodle-doo, 2020
Mixed media collage on canvas
65 x 45 inches
The looking glass, 2019
The looking glass, 2019
Mixed media collage on panel
60 x 48 inches
Portraits: When they look back (No. 4), 2020
Portraits: When they look back (No. 4), 2020
Mixed media collage on canvas
45 x 35 inches
This is who I am, 2020
This is who I am, 2020
Mixed media collage on canvas
70 x 70 inches
La’Condrea is a noun., 2020
La’Condrea is a noun., 2020
Serigraph on paper
30 x 22 inches
Kings get their heads cut off, 2019
Kings get their heads cut off, 2019
Mixed media collage on canvas
65 x 45 inches

One of the things that I wanted to do was to draw the viewer into seeing these kids as humans. Once you see yourself in other people, it’s hard to destroy that.

Deborah Roberts in Conversation with Zoé Whitley

Let us now praise Deborah Roberts

Eddie Chambers, Professor of Art History African Diaspora Art, The University of Texas at Austin

What Roberts’s work accomplishes, in the most beautiful, compelling, and persuasive of ways, is the restoring of childhood to Black children. Her collages are deliberately decorative, in that her figures are often dressed in the sorts of carefree combinations of fabrics that so often characterize the clothing of young children, particularly girls. Thus, Roberts is able to “dress” these children in all manner of bright, colorful, checkered, patterned, and striped amalgamations of clothing. Set against the artist’s trademark white backgrounds, these figures look striking and spectacular. Take, for example, her Not the face, 2018, which graced the cover of the Summer 2019 issue of Art Journal. The figure in the collage wears a William Morris–esque skirt and matching cravat, an attractive top, and pink floral ankle socks, which emerge from blue, white-laced plimsolls. And because the faces of Roberts’s creations are also montaged, there is, about these figures, something of the everyman, an ordinary or typical human being. Commenting on the decidedly active role that white backgrounds play in Roberts’s work, curator Hallie Ringle has noted, “The figures are placed against a stark white background that forces the audience to move from a passive mode of viewing to one in which they are forced to contend with the figures before them. The surrounding whiteness both shapes the figures and, in some cases, dwarfs them.” Ringle goes on to read Roberts’s montages not so much as creating comprehensively accessible “figures” to which we can each relate, but instead, as signifying a type of fracturing or incompleteness; this is undergirded by tensions that are invariably created when childhood is taken away from children. In writing about the conflicts that emerge in the minds of viewers—“between an assumed vision and the reality of the figure before them”—Ringle introduces sobering readings that further speak to the gendered aspects of Roberts’s creations. “This act of viewing and imagining reveals the fractured realities that girls this age must contend with.” Ringle goes on to read Roberts’s montages not so much as creating comprehensively accessible “figures” to which we can each relate, but instead, as signifying a type of fracturing or incompleteness; this is undergirded by tensions that are invariably created when childhood is taken away from children. In writing about the conflicts that emerge in the minds of viewers—“between an assumed vision and the reality of the figure before them”—Ringle introduces sobering readings that further speak to the gendered aspects of Roberts’s creations. “This act of viewing and imagining reveals the fractured realities that girls this age must contend with.” Ringle then proceeds to elaborate on Roberts’s working methodology and the ways in which she produces her remarkable pieces:

It’s important to note here that Roberts’s collages do not start on white sheets of paper but instead spend their nascent period taped to Roberts’s wall as she combines fragments together until a head forms. Roberts’s collages emphasize the personhood of the girls depicted; the sheet of paper is merely the holder for her constructed figure.

Deborah Roberts: Little man, little man, Exhibition video by Arts+Labor

Collage, from the earliest moments of Dadaism, was used to talk about Black identity, a woman’s rights.

Deborah Roberts in Conversation with Zoé Whitley

Portraits: When They Look Back (No. 1), 2020
Portraits: When they look back (No. 1), 2020
Mixed media collage on canvas
45 x 35 inches
Portraits: When they look back (No. 3), 2020
Portraits: When they look back (No. 3), 2020
Mixed media collage on canvas
45 x 35 inches
I see you (#16 of 27), 2019
I see you (#16 of 27), 2019
Serigraph on paper
17 x 11 inches
I see you (#26 of 27), 2019
I see you (#26 of 27), 2019
Serigraph on paper
17 x 11 inches
I see you (#22 of 27), 2019
I see you (#22 of 27), 2019
Serigraph on paper
17 x 11 inches

Euphoria and Tragedy

Deborah Roberts in conversation with Zoé Whitley, Director of the Chisenhale Gallery

ZW: I want to come back to what you were saying about destroying your own face. Because I’ll tell you, I never saw your collage technique as a destruction. I think that fundamentally, in the way you use collage, it feels like the series of images that you destroy, if you want to use that term, create a bigger whole. Can you talk me through the technique? Where do you get the individual images from?

DR: I do a lot of research. When I first used the photograph of my own face, in part it was because I didn’t know how to source images properly. Now I look for a certain type of innocence and beauty and joy that comes through in these images. When I select faces, the basic idea is that this is someone that you need to nourish, to take care of, to pull in close and not push away, deny, sexualize, or criminalize—all the things that happen to young girls in our society.

ZW: I love hearing you talk about your process. There’s an embeddedness of resilience. I’m thinking of Maya Angelou’s poetry. You find these faces in which the girls have some quality that is still able to radiate out, despite whatever they may have had to overcome. They have that “Yet, still I rise” sense about them.

DR: These are the images that I need to talk about Black girlhood and to explore how we become Black women. When do the gloves come off? When do we have to start defending who we are? So I try to start with something really beautiful.

What if? 2021
What if?, 2021
Mixed media installation
84 x 96 x 48 inches

I wanted you to be able to sit inside that confessional and pull the curtain and experience what it’s like to live in a body that no one recognizes or values.

Deborah Roberts in Conversation with Zoé Whitley

What if?, 2021

From “Reclaiming the ‘I’” by Heather Pesanti

Loosely based around the concept of a religious confessional, What if? continues Roberts’s examination of language through an immersive audiovisual and sculptural installation. Pulling aside a curtained entrance, the viewer encounters a steel bench with two cast imprints of feet on the floor. Sitting on the bench, placing their feet into the imprints, and donning headphones, the viewer faces a mirror and listens to an audio recording of a man and a woman speaking about children in stereotypical ways. Felt lettering of the names of several hundred Black women who have gone missing, either by choice or by violence inflicted upon them, serves as interior wallpaper, becoming obscured in darkness as the confessional’s curtain closes. A second curtained entrance brings the viewer to a separate space, the confessional’s corresponding side, featuring a video collage filmed by the artist in which a number of conventionally attractive blond white women read the women’s names that appear on the confessional walls. The title What if? paraphrases a line from the climactic scene of the 1996 courtroom drama A Time to Kill, in which a Black father goes on trial for killing the two white men who sexually assaulted his young daughter. Recounting the horrific story, the father’s defense attorney, portrayed by the Texas-born actor Matthew McConaughey, concludes, “Now imagine if she was white.” In asking “what if?” Roberts invokes the human impulse for empathy, implicating the viewer through mirroring, an intimate setting, and voiceovers that speak directly to them. By inviting her audience to stand in someone else’s shoes, literally and figuratively, the artist memorializes the women who have gone missing without recognition or closure, even as the viewer’s own body disappears within the enclosed, curtained space—their presence erased from the exhibition, if momentarily.