Black bodies in white spaces.
Deborah Roberts’ artwork literally and figuratively reflects Black bodies in white spaces.
Her combination of collage and brushwork sets Black children against pure white backgrounds. The Black bodies she puts on canvas are increasingly finding their way into one of the whitest spaces in America: art museums.
Roberts’ (b. 1962) fresh and provocative collages have set the art world on its ear since she moved from Austin to New York in 2017 to further her career. After a long, slow climb up the ladder, she now finds herself at the summit of contemporary art in America. An essential living artist in this country.
Her breakout exhibition, “Deborah Roberts: I’m,” opened at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, on September 16 where it will remain on view through December 4, 2022.
The show was organized by The Contemporary Austin with planning beginning prior to COVID. During the pandemic, unexpectedly, Roberts began noticing her collages and their figures changing.
“They got bigger during COVID and the idea of that was, no longer is white space important,” Roberts explained during a media preview for “I’m” at the Cummer Museum. “Right now, I’m trying to survive.”
Visitors will see this plainly. The flexing boy in Cock-a-doodle-doo (2019) occupies only the edge of his painting; white space dominates. Jamal (2020) fills the picture plane, whiteness squeezed to the margins.
The kids Robert’s depicts are all between eight and 12-years-old.
“That’s when I started putting on my gloves to defend who I was,” she said, adding, “I try to empower these children, but for people to also see them as children and let them exist in the world as children until they’re adults.”
Slowly maturing into adulthood is another white privilege Black children don’t enjoy.
Study, after study, after study exposes how Black girls are prejudicially punished in school and by law enforcement. The Jacksonville-based Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center found that in 2019-2020, Black girls in Florida represented 45 percent of the girls arrested, 47 percent of the girls incarcerated, 52 percent of girls on probation and 52 percent of the girls transferred into the adult criminal justice system despite making up only 21 percent of the population of Florida girls ages 10 to 17. Black girls accounted for 83 percent of the 15 girls under age 10 who were arrested and 55 percent of the 524 girls aged 12 and under who were arrested.
“When little Black girls get on a bus and they start screaming and yelling, they’re causing a problem. They’re out of control,” Roberts explained of how common childhood behavior by Black kids is perceived. “It’s not the same thing that little white kids (experience). They’re just (being) silly little girls.”
Roberts has seen this phenomenon surface as a result of her artwork. For years she depicted only Black girls in her artwork, recently has she begun showing boys.
Kings get their heads cut off pictures three Black boys huddled together.
“Oh, they up to no good,” she remembers a collector telling her upon seeing the piece. “I was like, ‘no, not really.’ This is your perception of the work that they’re up to no good and they’re just guys hanging out.”
That individual didn’t join Jay-Z, Beyoncé and the Obamas in acquiring artwork by Deborah Roberts. Kings’ title references a Jay-Z lyric.
Roberts’ artwork exposes the implicit racism in societal standards of beauty, decorum and value for Black children, simultaneously providing insight into what it means to grow up Black in America.
“When I was growing up you couldn’t look people in the face, you had to look down, cast your eyes down,” Roberts said. “I want these kids to look you directly in your face, have a conversation with you, be strong. You’re not lesser than. That’s why all the works have that one (eye) glare straight at you.”
Having been exhibited in Austin, Denver and Los Angeles, “I’m” closes its tour at the Cummer, the only East Coast location. Credit for that coup goes to the Cummer’s director and CEO, Andrea Barnwell Brownlee.
When the schedule was being planned, Barnwell asked to host and Roberts didn’t hesitate in saying “yes,” despite Jacksonville’s remove from the contemporary art mainstream.
Brownlee showed Roberts’ work in 2018 during her long tenure as head of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta. For Brownlee, who took charge at The Cummer in December of 2019, this marks the third time she’s leaned on a previously existing relationship with a Black female artist to bring prominent, provocative, contemporary artwork to Jacksonville. The kind of art rarely seen here.
Securing “I’m” stands as another remarkable achievement for Brownlee considering Roberts’ skyrocketing profile. This presentation wouldn’t be out of its depth at any museum in any arts hotspot in the country.
Brownlee promised “radical change” when she left Spelman for the Cummer. She vowed to transform the Cummer into a more regionally and nationally relevant institution. She assured the museum would be more welcoming to diverse audiences.
Check. Check. Check.
“(As an artist) one of the things you hope for is that you don’t have to talk about everything; they’re familiar with the past, the culture, so when they hang the show, they understand that,” Roberts told Forbes.com of the benefit Black artists experience when Black museum directors like Brownlee host them. “They understand what works work best (together), culturally. That’s important. Having her understand my work already is game won, game almost over, now you just have to figure out the logistics.”
The Florida art museum and director making headlines this summer was the Orlando Museum of Art and disgraced Aaron DeGroft after the institution was raided by the FBI for exhibiting phony Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings. The museum leader in the Sunshine State deserving of headlines is Brownlee for the major victories she continues scoring for the Cummer and Jacksonville.
Unbelievably, when paired with the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville’s presentation of Kara Walker through October 2, no city in the country will have two better shows of contemporary art than the self-proclaimed Bold New City of the South.
In addition to Black bodies in white spaces, “I’m” includes new iterations of Roberts’s silkscreened text works presenting the names of Black women underlined in red, as if marked as incorrect or unrecognizable in a Microsoft Word document. New collages and paintings, some set against black backgrounds for the first time, as well as a new interactive sound, text and video sculpture demonstrate the multiplicity of her creativity.
Multiplicity being a critical aspect of Roberts’ collages as well, composing faces using different features from different pictures. The amalgamation makes her kids simultaneously unique and composite.
“I’m asking (visitors) to look beyond all these faces and find one face to make a connection with,” she said.
Roberts will have been successful if American society changes the way it looks at Black kids. A better way to see them would be the way she sees them.
“I see potential,” Roberts said.