For her exhibition at The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center on Congress Avenue, Deborah Roberts (born 1962 in Austin, Texas) presents a selection of new collages and paintings, as well as a new interactive sound, text, and video sculpture on the museum’s first floor through August 15. In tandem with the exhibition, earlier this fall, the museum commissioned the artist to create a new figurative mural on the exterior of the Jones Center building. Deborah Roberts: I’m represents the first solo museum exhibition in Texas of Roberts’s work.
Roberts’s timely and urgent work critiques the implicit racism in societal standards of beauty and identity for Black people, especially Black children. The artist 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.
Deborah Roberts new work
In the work created for her exhibition in Austin, Roberts includes a number of new formal and iconographic details. A formal approach to color theory has always been embedded in the artist’s two-dimensional works. 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.
New iconographic elements that appear throughout the works include the word “Pop,” which manifests in a number of ways. For instance, in The duty of disobedience, 2020, it can be seen literally in the title of the childhood song “Pop goes the Weasel” on one of the subject’s shirts and inferred in an arrangement of red balloons on the shirt of another. Further, in this work the three young girls dressed in shirts depicting monkeys and weasels force viewers to confront America’s stereotyping of Black people. Referencing racist tropes to describe Black people as animals, Roberts does not shy away from the abhorrent way Black lives have been caricatured for centuries.
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 the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, “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.’”
The exhibition will also include new iterations of Roberts’s well-known silkscreened text works presenting the names of Black women underlined in red, as if marked as incorrect or unrecognizable in a Microsoft Word document. For example, La’Condrea is a noun., 2020, calls out the racial biases programmed into the software, even with regard to proper names.
In conjunction with the forthcoming exhibition, in September 2020, Roberts installed a newly commissioned figurative mural on the exterior of The Contemporary Austin’s Jones Center building. Little man, little man, 2020, features collaged images of a young Black boy in various gestures of action, printed onto weather-resistant vinyl.
Roberts noted, “I wanted these collage works to demonstrate the emotional, celebratory energy of this young child as he tries to make his way into adulthood without being targeted or criminalized.” The large-scale work represents Roberts’s and The Contemporary Austin’s first outdoor mural.