Deborah Roberts, an Austin-based internationally recognized artist, has filed suit against artist Lynthia Edwards and her Brooklyn gallerist Richard Beavers, and his eponymous gallery, for copyright infringement.
The civil complaint was filed Aug. 1 in United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
Specifically the complaint alleges that Edwards created collage artworks “that are copied from and substantially and confusingly similar to several series of original Deborah Roberts collages.” The complaint also alleges that the Beavers and Edwards “have aggressively marketed (Edward’s) collages, including by promoting them at one or more high-profile national art fairs at which Ms. Roberts has also promoted and sold” her collages, including popular art fairs such as Expo Chicago and Unlimited Art Miami Beach.
In the complaint, Roberts asks for damages of $1 million.
The complaint follows several cease and desist letters that attorneys for Roberts have sent to Edwards and Beavers since early 2021. One such letter details how Beavers had contacted Roberts in 2020 to “secure authority to exhibit and sell her work.”
But after Roberts declined to work with Beavers, the complaint alleges that “(Beavers) and Lynthia Edward have substantially copied and offered for sale… works of visual art that replicate the composition, content, style, framing, color, narrative and artistic intent of Ms. Roberts’ work.”
On Sept. 22, New York attorney Luke Nikas representing the defendants, filed a letter with the court stating his clients intention to file a motion to dismiss the suit. Nikas told Art News, which first reported the story, that he plans to file a separate lawsuit seeking redress.
Roberts’ attorney, Robert W. Clarida, said in a statement to Art News, “Deborah Roberts is undertaking a legal case regarding copyright infringement and related claims against Lynthia Edwards, Richard Beavers and Richard Beavers Gallery. This is now a matter for the US judicial system to determine.”
“This is not a frivolous claim,” Roberts told Sightlines when reached by phone. “I want everyone to be successful in the art world, especially young and emerging artists of color. To say that I punch down at a younger artist is disingenuous. I don’t know (Edwards), but her work is being mistaken as mine.”
After years of working unrecognized by the greater art world, Roberts, a native Austinite, has now gained national and international respect and attention for her collage-based paintings. In her unique style, she uses images culled from news and pop culture, altering them with painted details and appliqués to create complex composite figures of Black children and youth. Roberts’ distinctive fractured figures are often placed against a stark white background. More recently she has positioned her images on black backgrounds, as new work revealed in “I’m” an exhibition organized and debuted at the Contemporary Austin and now traveling nationally.
In a 2021 interview with Sightlines Roberts said “(collage) allows me to create different pathways to talk about the multiplicity of the Black experience. Working with these fractured pieces, I build a whole person, a whole life. I make you look at each individual feature of a face.”
Roberts is represented by galleries in London and Los Angeles. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Austin’s Blanton Museum, among others. Individual art pieces fetch upwards of $150,000. High-profile private collectors of her work include President Barak Obama, Padma Lakshmi and Beyoncé.
Most recently, Roberts was awarded the Texas Medal of the Art.
Supporting documents included with the complaint point to how in 2019 Edwards, who is based in Birmingham, Alabama, shifted from her portraiture and quilt-based work and began to create collages that are strikingly imitative of Roberts’ collages. And the complaint alleges that in “one or more instances, the Defendants’ copying… has gone so far as to incorporate the same photographic source material that Ms. Roberts selected for inclusion (in her collages).”
Citing a recent article by Angela N Carroll in Sugarcane magazine titled “Ethics and Controversy: Reviewing Appropriation in Black Art,” the complaint quotes Carroll who writes of the “notable uptick in the display of lesser known artists whose styles were almost identical to prominent African-American artists.”
The complaint also highlights a quote in the article from Erica Moiah James, professor of African, Black, and Caribbean art at the University of Miami, who, commenting on what he saw at the Art Basel Miami and Untitled art fairs said: “The Deborah Roberts shadow play was perhaps the most disturbing and disturbingly obvious. There was absolutely no effort to transform. The boldness of the maker and the gallery [Lynthia Edwards and Richard Beavers Gallery, respectively] to share that work in that space was stunning.”