Deborah Roberts Inspiration vs. Imitation

“It’s one thing to be inspired by someone, (it’s another thing) to impersonate them” – Deborah Roberts

Deborah Roberts worked her way into becoming one of the most sought-after contemporary artists in America, and as a result, now finds herself as one of the most copied as well. Roberts required little provocation to vent about this duality when talking to the media prior to the opening of her exhibition, “Deborah Roberts: I’m,” at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, FL.

“What’s happening now with me, I think it’s about money,” Roberts said. “When you have an artist in high demand, and everything that’s being produced now by Black artists is selling – we are making more money than we ever made before.”

Gallery, collector and institutional attention for Black artists is finally catching up with the exceptional caliber of work they’ve been making after 100-some years of purposeful, systemic art world marginalization. Catching up, not yet equitable or at the level it belongs, but considerable strides have undoubtably been made.

This has fueled something of a “gold rush” for Black artists. Galleries, collectors and museums sense a “moment,” a speculative market for Black artists where swift action can capture “the next big thing” and considerable profits.

Ghanian painter Amoako Boafo’s story exemplifies this phenomenon.

Roberts has experienced this rocket ship ride herself. The Austin, TX native who celebrates her 60th birthday this year had a long, slow rise up the local and regional art ranks common of talented, successful, professional artists. At the urging of a friend advising that her work needed to be seen in New York to be fully appreciated, she moved to the City in 2017. Her first show sold out. $187,000 in three days.

“Next thing you know, Jed’s a millionaire,” Roberts said jokingly of herself, quoting “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme.

Artists have of course noticed this. The less scrupulous among them see angles. Shortcuts. A marketplace more hungry than diligent to feed its appetites.

Roberts’ iconic collage paintings lend themselves, in a way, to rip-offs. Her best-known works have plain white backgrounds. That’s easy to replicate. They make a powerful artistic statement, but don’t require hours of meticulous detailing like Kehinde Wiley’s portraits. Her use of photographic reproductions further emboldens copycats. “If she can source images of Black people from the internet and cut them up to make faces, why can’t I?” A great deal of intention goes into the eyes and lips and noses Roberts uses, but thinking like a scam artist, its easy to see how one might target her work as “copyable” and target her.

“When you call these people out and they say its competition and not copying – we know its copying, its visual plagiarism,” Roberts said.

Deborah Roberts, The duty of disobedience, 2020. Mixed media collage on canvas. 72 x 100 inches. 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, The duty of disobedience, 2020. Mixed media collage on canvas. 72 x 100 inches. Artwork © Deborah Roberts. Courtesy the artist; Vielmetter Los Angeles; and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photograph by Paul Bardagjy.

Roberts experience on the other side of the “imitation vs. inspiration” question and her forthright admission of being influenced by other artists and how she adjusted her image making in order not to step on toes gives her even greater credibility on this subject.

“Some of my work really does look like Romare Bearden,” she admits. “I’m not trying to do that, but when I see it, I try to correct it.”

When she was struggling to find feedback she trusted on her early collages, she elicited the help of fellow Black female contemporary art superstar Carrie Mae Weems. Weems told Roberts what she was producing too closely resembled Wangechi Mutu, another Black female contemporary art powerhouse. Roberts bristled at the comparison, but altered what she was doing to avoid imitation.

She now finds herself in the bizarre situation of altering her work to avoid having it too closely resemble her impersonators.

“I’m cutting my collages differently so that I won’t look like (imitators),” she shared with exacerbation.

All artists have sources, predecessors who they draw inspiration from. Long-held romantic fantasies of the isolated genius artist receiving lightning bolts of unique creative visions which come from nowhere and nothing previous are just that, fantasies. Pablo Picasso famously said, “good artists copy, great artists steal.” While an exaggeration, Picasso himiself borrowed liberally. Perhaps the most important 20th century painting, his 1907 Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, was heavily influenced by African masks.

Roberts readily acknowledges her influences and artistic inspirations including Bearden and Weems and Mutu and Mickalene Thomas and Norman Rockwell and Robert Rauschenberg. And Toni Morrison and Jay-Z and the “1619 Project.” She singled out Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” in particular when discussing what she was interested in when creating the work in “I’m.”

She “sampled” Sidney Portier’s face from “The Defiant Ones” for use in one of her collages.

None of this makes her work derivative, an imitation, or anything less than 100% authentic Deborah Roberts.

As a working artist, she doesn’t see imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. She is currently litigating what she believes to be infringements on her intellectual property, a battle she refused to provide much detail on. Prior to seeing the exhibition, Cummer Museum staff requested media not take and share photographs of individual artworks as they are all copyrighted, an uncommon request surely stemming from Roberts’ trouble with mimics.

The situation is clearly a sore spot for the artist known for her humor, which she didn’t lose entirely when discussing the matter, joking, “I’m not even dead yet!”

UPDATE: Details have emerged regarding Deborah Roberts copyright infringement lawsuit, including the artist and power gallery she’s suing.

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