A few months before Deborah Roberts was listed on New York Times critic Holland Cotter’s recent “19 Artists to Watch Next Year,” she told me: “This year has been just crazy for me. I’ve worked so hard and now all this is happening.”
Cotter spotlighted Roberts along with the other 18 emerging artists of African descent featured in “Fictions,” a survey exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The kudo is just the latest triumph that 2017 has brought the Austin-based artist who just a year ago was working in the shoe department of a sporting goods store.
For the last several years, Roberts has produced collage-based work, creating composite figures of African-American girls. They have a vaguely Dadaist sensibility — features in mismatched proportion, limbs surrealistically contorted, foreshortened hands clenched in a fist or clad in a cartoonishly large red boxing glove. They wear clothes in bold geometric patterns and sport twisted pigtails or short braids.
“Society says that little black girls are already less innocent than little white girls. But I want to show the power these black girls have,” Roberts tells me when I meet with her in her studio. “They’re girls, not grown women. They’re a bit sassy but they’re also innocent. How does a little black girl become her own fierce proud black woman?”
Roberts sources photographic images from popular culture and from current publications, sometimes deliberately selecting images for their cultural import: Willow Spence’s forearm, Mariah Carey’s cheek, Michelle Obama’s hand.
Roberts’ girls are mischievous, defiant, proud. They gaze directly at the viewer. With more conceptual strategy than is immediately apparent, Roberts’ images brilliantly subvert stereotypes of Black femaleness and beauty with biting humor.
“Black ideas of beauty and shape and size have always differed,” says Roberts. “It’s our notion of beauty. And there’s no singular or ‘correct’ way African American women should look like even if that’s prevailing attitude coming from white culture.”
In March Roberts had a strong solo presence in “Your Body is A Battle Ground,” an exhibit at the Volta NY art fair. Roberts’ work provoked a flurry of attention. Every piece sold. Studio Museum of Harlem director Thelma Golden stopped by and acquired several works for the museum’s permanent collection and subsequently Roberts was included in the “Fictions” exhibit. New York Magazine art critic and attention-getter Jerry Saltz breezed through and heaped praise on her work. Roberts was introduced to some trustees of the Museum of Modern Art. And then shortly after the Volta fair, Beyoncé bought three of Roberts’ works.
Independent critic Wendy Vogel curated “Your Body is A Battle Ground” and suggests that the enormous appeal Roberts’ work comes from a potent mix of strategies.
“(Her images) have a high degree of legibility and also a deep conceptualism — that’s a rare combination. There’s also a good deal of humor in them and some straight up visual puns. And they have a visual economy that’s really exacting and also very visceral.”
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A few months after the wildly successful Volta show, Roberts was back in Austin at work on a solo exhibit at the Christian-Green Gallery, part of the University of Texas’ Warfield Center for African and African American Studies.
One of the pieces she created was a text-based work, a serigraph that featured lines of African American female names — Shamecca, Latifah, Lakesha, Tynett, Queenlana, Keyah — rendered in a classic typewriter font.
When Roberts went to retrieve the serigraph screen from an art shop, before she got to the counter she overheard the male counter clerks who happened to have her work in hand.
“I never met a ‘Shantelle’ with a job,” Roberts heard one clerk say. The comments continued.
“These are just ghetto names.”
“Why do black people name their kids this?”
“You know she can twerk.”
“It was all a big joke to them, the girls’ names,” Roberts says. “That’s the type of backlash black girls with African American names get all the time. The racism and misogyny just doesn’t stop.”
So Roberts made an artistic mark of defiant reclamation. In the print’s margin she added the overheard comments, circling the names each comment referenced. The lines of text look as if an editor has made corrections.
She named the piece, “Resistance Series: The Blame” and it is now part of the Warfield’s collection.
“These are American names,” Roberts said. “They are rooted in black culture, and black culture is a part of American culture. Black history is an American history. We need to cherish those names. And we need to cherish the girls who have those names.”
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Of course that Roberts is in her mid-fifties and is regarded by the larger art world as “emerging” is an irony not lost on the artist. She has, after all, been a working artist for years.
“I’m grateful for all the attention now and I’m getting a better handle on it,” she says. “I’ve realized it’s okay to have my own pace with my work and not give in to demands from other people.”
Roberts puts in 12-hour days in her current studio, a small second bedroom in a house she is renting and in which she lives by herself. The meticulous surfaces of her collage-based work are the result of deft, labor-intensive augmentation with gouache and ink.
On the studio wall is a handwritten list of rules: “Women (change their status)” “Send a message even if only certain people get it.” “New ideas while talking about the ‘familiar’ like hair, identity, the body, the gaze, colorism, sexism.” “Think, think, think, then write.” “Take a break… start again.”
Born and raised in Austin, Roberts’s family home was in what was then the African American East Austin neighborhood known as The Hill. She wanted to be an artist by the time she eight-years-old. She drew on everything: her bedroom wall or in the margins of her school notebooks trading her drawings for yet more notebook paper. She drew lots and lots of images of Michael Jackson. “I was so in love with him,” she laughs.
“I was happy when I was eight years old,” she says, recalling how she walked to her familiar elementary school.
In 1973, as she entered sixth grade, Roberts was bused to then all-white Travis Heights Elementary School. She had never ridden a school bus before.
Under federal order to desegregate, Austin’s school district was in turmoil in the early 1970s. After busing, fights erupted among students in some schools. And discrimination took an insidious and direct form too.
“It was a horrible experience, something I hate to even think about,” says Roberts. “People — even my teachers — tell you that you’re ruining their school, that you’re disgusting, that you look disgusting and you shouldn’t even be there.”
I mention to Roberts that the girls in her art work are about the same age as she was when she went through that trauma.
“Well, I don’t have much to say about that,” she says, and quickly changes the topic.
Off to college at the University of North Texas Roberts studied art and graphic design. Then for years she worked as an illustrator in Austin. And she also painted pictures of happy Black families in idyllic settings — paintings that sold handily to what she describes as aspirational patrons.
“Everybody called me the Black Norman Rockwell,” Roberts says. “I was painting this romantic ideal of Blackness, nice suburban houses and girls in frilly dresses.”
But she grew restless. She began reading social critic and political activist Cornel West. In her painting she began to experiment, toying with surrealism and wrestling with collage and appropriated images. Then she made the bold decision to go to graduate school, a move few people in their forties make but one that Roberts felt was urgent.
Roberts headed to Syracuse University where she completed her MFA in 2014.
“Before grad school I was just working through the work when what I needed was to be challenged, to have the scholarship behind me,” she says. “My work is really still about the same things as before but now I feel I’m working things out conceptually beforehand rather than within the work.
Once in Syracuse, on her own initiative, Roberts sought out MacArthur Fellowship-winning artist, and Syracuse resident, Carrie Mae Weems, a potent encounter that still resonates for Roberts. Yet three years at the private university in upstate New York was not without its cultural isolation.
“I was the first black graduate student in art they had in 32 years,” Roberts says. She shrugs. “It snows all the time up there so you can’t do anything but work and learn.”
Back in Austin after graduate school, Roberts netted a Pollock Krasner Foundation grant which she carefully meted out to last a year, an important stretch of concentrated creative time that enabled her to continue deepen her practice.
“My work has been exploring the same issues all along — how African American identity has been imagined and shaped by societal, white society, interpretations of beauty,” say Roberts. “After graduate school, with the Pollock Krasner, I really experimented and started demanding more of my work.”
As the flurry of 2017 continued, future opportunities rained on Roberts. Next year she has solo exhibits at San Francisco’s Jenkins Johnson Gallery, at Spelman College in Atlanta and at galleries in Paris and Los Angeles. And in 2019 she has a project at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
Meanwhile the Blanton Museum of Art acquired two of Roberts works. One, “Skewered,” depicts a young black girl who wears a striped skirt with yellow bows and holds a mask in each hand.
Veronica Roberts, the Blanton’s curator of modern and contemporary art, notes that the iconography of “Skewered” is particularly potent, evidence of the artist’s attention to the layers of every compositional decision she makes.
“The bun at the top of the figure’s hair is, in fact, a painted pile of matches, a hint at the volatile events that inspired this work: the July 2017 acquittal of the Minnesota police officer who killed Philando Castile, an innocent black man whose girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter watched as he was shot to death after being stopped for a broken tail light,” says curator Roberts (no relation to the artist).
“I so admire the way Deborah captures the very skewed notions of female beauty that girls, especially black girls, confront as they come of age while simultaneously making reference to the literal violence perpetrated against black bodies.”
On her studio wall Roberts works out the compositions of each face, using blue painter’s tape to attach the cut-out images. Roberts leverages collage technique to force viewers to try and locate multiple faces within each face, she says.
“When you look at my work I want you to look at every part of the girls’ faces and make you see something out of the different fragments. These faces are demanding, they’re asking you to see their humanity and individuality.”
“I want to force you to see black people, black girls as not as this monolithic being but as individuals.”