By Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Ph.D.
Deborah Roberts (b. 1962) is internationally regarded for her mixed-media collages, which critique beauty, the body, race, gender, identity, and other contemporary social constructs through the lens of Black children. This season the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens will present “Deborah Roberts: I’m,” the nationally touring exhibition featuring more than 30 works by this critically acclaimed artist. Inspired by personal and lived experiences that informed her upbringing in Austin, Texas, Roberts harnesses the struggles associated with being a Black girl as the underpinnings of her work. She is a keen observer who is guided by a rich knowledge of history and informed by contemporary events that directly impact African Americans. She has an uncanny ability to create inspiring work that examines under-discussed and underrepresented narratives. As exhibition curator Heather Pesanti notes in her catalogue essay, by naming the exhibition “I’m,” Roberts interrogates the loaded vernacular of racism and encourages viewers to consider social justice in new and relevant ways.
Roberts’s work has evolved over the course of more than three decades. Initially inspired by Norman Rockwell’s idyllic portraits of everyday life but discouraged that his depictions rarely included Black people or reflected her own experiences, she began painting her own versions of everyday life. Roberts achieved modest success with commercial clients. However, she still needed to work in a shoe store to make ends meet. Her work took on new dimensions in the 2000s. Experimenting with cutting, layering, and combining painting with collage, she discovered a new visual vocabulary that allowed her to expand her exploration of blackness.
“Deborah Roberts: I’m” demonstrates the artist’s relentless crusade to humanize Black subjects. In her large, powerful, and vibrantly colored mixed-media portraits such as “Fighting the ISM” (2019) and “The unseen” (2020), contorted and fragmented figures and fractured faces signal dignity. While her complex subjects are insecure, vulnerable, and serious, they emerge as larger than life, playful, and heroic.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Roberts’s practice is her commitment to growth, experimenting, and extending her craft even when no one is looking. Working in isolation during the pandemic, she began using the color black as the background, suggesting absence, seen in works such as “Portraits: When they look back (No. 1)” and “Portraits: When they look back (No. 3).” In an interview with Zoé Whitley, which is featured in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, Roberts explains that through these paintings, she grapples with the fact that hundreds of Black women have gone missing, yet no one is talking about them. She outlines the figures in chalk—a clear reference to the chalk lines that police and coroners draw around dead bodies at crime scenes. These mixed-media collages on canvas become urgent pleas to address societal injustices and the persistent disregard for Black life.
Roberts pursued this line of inquiry further in “What if?” (2021), a large, audiovisual sculptural installation, which becomes a confessional of sorts. This installation is an extension of Roberts’s extensive examination of names associated with Black girls and women, stereotypes, and radical prejudices. In “Pluralism and Sovereignty,” her ongoing series of serigraphs (which are not included in the exhibition), Roberts features names such as Sharkesha, Sharday, Queenland, and Anesha. In “What if?,” a string of unique names are made of felt letters and affixed to several of the walls. Roberts explains: