Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens Director Andrea Barnwell Brownlee shared exciting news on the museum’s Instagram account during a “Q & A” with followers September 15th, announcing the Cummer will present an exhibition of Deborah Roberts’ artwork in 2022. Roberts (b. 1962; Austin, TX) timely and urgent work critiques the implicit racism in societal standards of beauty and identity for Black people, especially Black children. Brownlee previously exhibited Roberts while director at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta.
“Deborah Roberts: I’m” thoughtfully and empathetically weaves narratives on what it means to grow up Black in America. The title “I’m,” points to a sense of empowerment and a reclaiming of collective identity. Her work confronts racism, marginalization, and stereotyping while remaining hopeful for better understanding, empathy, and respect for one’s unique lived experiences.
Roberts’s mixed media works on paper and on canvas combine images sourced from the internet with hand-painted details in striking figural compositions that invite viewers to reckon with these psychologically layered portraits. Referencing the subversive and politically charged strategies of Cubist collage and Dada Photomontage—movements towards abstraction that were influenced by African masks and sculptures—Roberts confronts the viewer with the fractured sense of self and perception that Black children inherit in a systemically racist society with whitewashed standards of beauty, decorum, and value.
In “I’m,” large fields of color are contrasted against one another and against intricate color patterns in the boys’ and girls’ garments. In addition, in a selection of works here, Roberts has for the first time set some of her subjects against black rather than white backgrounds. Viewers will viscerally experience how the figures and their clothing are perceived differently when placed against these different, contrasting fields.
Recently, the artist has begun depicting Black boys in addition to girls, exposing the specific burdens and traumas confronting this population. In Jamal, 2020, the artist portrays a young Black boy casually sitting, his legs extending toward the edges of the canvas in the composition’s foreground and one of his boots pushing out of the frame entirely.
Conveying a range of experiences, the Black children who Roberts frequently depicts are complex, dispelling any sense of a monolithic idea of “Blackness.” As the artist noted in an interview for her 2018 exhibition at Spelman, “We know we cannot change people’s ideas of Blackness, so we have to say ‘This is what I see, or perceive you see in me. You see me as this fractured being, not a whole person. I am not this flat dimensional person. I am complex.’”
For Brownlee, who took charge at The Cummer in December of 2019, this marks the second time she’s leaned on a previously existing relationship with a Black artist to bring high-profile, provocative, contemporary artwork to Jacksonville. The first time was a COVID-19 scramble which saw Zanele Muholi’s breathtaking photographs come through. Securing the Deborah Roberts show stands as another remarkable achievement with Roberts skyrocketing up the contemporary art “charts” – so to speak – with her work gathering major institutional and collector attention.
This is precisely what Brownlee promised when she said she would bring “radical change” to the Cummer. It’s also delivering on her promise to transform the Cummer into a more regionally and nationally relevant institution. And on her promise to make the museum more welcoming to diverse audiences.
Also, like Muholi, it allows audiences in Jacksonville to observe the most cutting-edge contemporary art being produced today without traveling to Miami or New York, a rare treat for a city of Jacksonville’s size. What’s more, with the show in-house, visitors can spend time with that work through a series of visits over the course of months.
All of this would not be possible without Brownlee who in only two years has scored major victories for the Cummer and Jacksonville.