Deborah Roberts finds her voice thanks to Ron Artest?

Deborah Roberts didn’t always produce the mixed-media collages of Black children she’s become famous for. Her early career started with “Norman Rockwell-type work” in her own words.

When previewing the exhibition “Deborah Roberts: I’m” at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in September of 2022, Roberts revealed the most unlikely source of her creative transformation.

“Thank Ron Artest,” she said.

Art lovers will be forgiven for not knowing the reference.

Artest had a 15-year career in the National Basketball Association from 1999-2014. He was one of the toughest, most aggressive defenders in the league. A feisty, scrappy, antagonizer. A later-day Dennis Rodman. The kind of player fans love if he’s on their team and hate if he’s on the opposition.

Artest earned selection to one NBA All-Star team, was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 – a remarkable achievement shared by Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Kevin Garnett – and won an NBA Title with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010 playing alongside Kobe Bryant.

A damn good player.

He will always be most well-known, however, for 2004’s “Malice in the Palace.” That was the ugly melee which took place between players from the Indiana Pacers and fans of the Detroit Pistons in the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills arena just outside of Detroit. Nothing like it had ever occurred in major American sports. The invisible wall between participant and spectator violently shattered.

With less than a minute to play in the game, Artest fouled one of Detroit’s best players – hard. A fight broke out on the court between the two teams. That happens. What was unprecedented, and what turned this unremarkable early-season NBA game that would barely merit inclusion in “SportsCenter” into a global news event, was that after Artest was pulled from the melee, a fan threw a drink at him from the stands. Enraged, Artest charged into the stands and accosted the man he believed threw the object. He had the wrong guy.

Players, coaches, security guards and fans mixed it up in the stands for what seemed like minutes. I remember watching live on TV in amazement. At this time, I was working as a producer at ESPN Radio – the preeminent sports media company in the world.

Artest, who would later change his name to Metta World Peace and then Metta Sandiford-Artest, was suspended for the rest of the season and forevermore became an villain to fans across the league, and millions of other people who don’t even follow professional basketball.

“I was painting and CNN played that over and over and over,” Roberts recalls of media coverage of the “Malice in the Palace” highlights which dominated the national news cycle for days. “Every 15 minutes they were showing a big, Black man with big muscles, out of control, into the stands. This is the image they are projecting around the world; this is the image they want everybody to see.”

Deborah Roberts (American, b. 1962), Jamal, 2020. Mixed media collage on canvas, 65 x 45 in. Artwork © Deborah Roberts. Courtesy the artist; Vielmetter Los Angeles; and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photograph by Paul Bardagjy.
Deborah Roberts (American, b. 1962), Jamal, 2020. Mixed media collage on canvas, 65 x 45 in. Artwork © Deborah Roberts. Courtesy the artist; Vielmetter Los Angeles; and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photograph by Paul Bardagjy.

Roberts’ work strives to present a more accurate, sensitive, empathetic, nuanced, distinguished, celebratory vision of Black people than that what is commonly shared in the mass media: the “Ron Artest” angry, dangerous, young Black man; the wailing mother grieving the loss of a child following a shooting; the poor, the protestor, the mug shot.

Those images work to purposefully “other” Black people. To make them seem dangerous to white America. Less than. Victims, perpetrators, hostiles, addicts.

100 years of these images flooded into the American consciousness and subconscious from the mass media – carefully, intentionally – has created a feeling among many in white America – and Black America – that Black people are inherently different from white people. Scary. Pathetic. Out of control. Uneducated.

It’s propaganda meant to distance Blacks and whites. Make us feel like we’re on different teams, with white people on the better team.

How often have you ever seen a loving Black family portrayed in the mass media? That’s what made “The Cosby Show” and “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” groundbreaking. White America almost never saw functional Black families with moms and dads and kids going to college.

It’s what made the “Black is Beautiful” movement revolutionary. Black women, positioned as equals in beauty and sophistication with any other race.

Countless artists from Roberts to Elizabeth Catlett, Gordon Parks, Kwame Braithwaite, Dawoud Bey, Carrie Mae Weems, Amy Sherald, Derrick Adams – shoot, just about every Black artist in the past century at some point in their career has attempted to counter American mass media’s derogatory messaging of Black people through their work.

Few do so better than Roberts who focuses her attention on children. Children, after all, are the youngest sufferers of these misperceptions and the abuses which result from them.

Roberts’ children are precious, inquisitive, self-aware, thoughtful, bright, beautiful.

“I see potential” is how she describes them.

Contrast this with how Black kids and adults have largely been portrayed in America. Think about why that was done. Thank Deborah Roberts and all these other artists for doing their part to combat it.

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