Deborah Roberts’ Investment in Time Pays Off November 07 2021
Deborah Roberts has been an artist all her life, but her notoriety came relatively late. She received a bachelor’s degree at the University of North Texas in 1985, and almost 30 years later, she earned an MFA from Syracuse University in 2014. It wasn’t until 2017, at the age of 55, that she became known in the artworld. Roberts never thought people would know who she is, but now she’s in major collections around the country and in several private celebrity collections.
In 2017, Roberts’ work was in the Volta Art Fair’s Your Body is a Battle Ground show. The day of the preview, she recalled a woman asking her, “who is this artist?” She replied that she was the artist. The woman, who was on the board at MoMA, told her she was going to do well. Roberts responded with, “From your lips to God’s ears.” She ended up selling all the work in the show, in her studio, and from the gallery. When she got back to Austin, she went to work right away. She produced more work and more people called. She became the face of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Fictions show in 2017. The following year, she was featured in a spring collection fashion spread in New York Magazine. She had a show at a New York gallery, and it kept going.
She’s in collections at the Whitney Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and Brooklyn Museum. Beyonce, Barack Obama, and Ava Duvernay own her work. But she had to grow into this level of success. She was always an artist.
“As they say, you come out as an artist. Either you’re an artist or you’re not,” she says.
Roberts started being an artist early on. In grade school, she drew race cars and Barbie dolls for other kids. She attended a black school where they were more interested in making doctors, lawyers, and teachers—not artists. But she was moved to a gifted and talented program for three hours a day in high school where she just worked on art.
Although her mother and father didn’t understand their child’s determination to be an artist, Deborah Roberts was not deterred. She says, “The idea of anybody being an artist didn’t make sense to them. And it wasn’t because they were ignorant. They just didn’t understand. They were hard workers.” Roberts’ father worked for the electric company and her mother was a domestic. Roberts’ father made fun of her ambitions, but that just made her pursue it even more. He died before her fame and success, but her mother was able to see some of it before she passed.
Though Deborah Roberts is known for collages of Black children, the conversation about Black Americana (that she’s been having for a while) didn’t start out with collages. She started making collages in graduate school. Before then, she was making Norman Rockwell-like paintings of Black girls in church or little boys walking down the street kicking rocks. The paintings talked about identity and humanity as well. “The language has changed, but the idea of the work is the same,” she says. She is interested in conveying the humanity of Black children.
Roberts’ collages piece together disparate body parts to create a whole being who, in some ways, may look disfigured with limbs stretched akimbo and differently sized eyes placed unevenly on a face on a canvas. But the work stems from a place of compassion. Her work begs for us to see the figures in her work as children, not miniature adults. She says, “it’s telling you: you don’t see me as a beautiful child, you see me as a monster no matter what age I am. You don’t see me as a person trying to live in this world. You see me as something abstract, abnormal, and you don’t see the beauty in my humanity.”
Incidents where Black children are not seen as children by law enforcement motivates this practice. Tamir Rice, who held a toy gun; Dajerria Becton, the 15-year-old teenager, who was wrestled to the ground by a police officer at a pool party; and the 9-year-old girl who was pepper sprayed were not seen as children. Their guilt was assumed by the color of their skin. “All of those things inspire me to do my practice and inspire me to say ‘look at the beauty of this child. How can you hurt or harm her?’”
Her mixed-media portraits join the conversation in relation to Black art, American history, and Black history, but they are also having a conversation about identity and beauty. Roberts could create paintings that do this work. She’s a fan of Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Rafael, and Rubens. She can draw a foot by memory because she studied it, but the idea of creating collaged children was hers. She says, “We all learn from each artist before us, and we take something because that’s the gift they give to us.” But she says, “one of my biggest challenges is people who blatantly copy my work.” To some degree, she understands why someone else would copy her work. After all, Roberts’ work is successful and copying her work guarantees success.
Experiencing theft of her work has relinquished the artist as the mentor she used to be. “I no longer do all my talks as much. I don’t give as much advice as I used to. I have a certain group of artists I talk to and artists I’m trying to help with their careers.” Roberts keeps a tight circle these days, naming Amy Sherald as friend and inspiration. Six years ago, they both received grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. She says of herself and Sherald, “We been through the trenches.” They paid their dues and created original approaches to art that made them become noticed and appreciated. “There are about eight of us who really support each other in the way that black women should, and not only that but Black artists.”
Though we can surmise the struggle that Black children face when looking at Roberts’ work, beauty is even more evident. Roberts creates collaged figures against a white background; the scale and texture make them remarkable. Her statement is clear and not convoluted. The playfulness of the girls and boys she creates highlights innocence. She gives to the childish figure’s virtuousness, as if all the burdens that Black children bear are nonexistent. Many of her works don’t imply hardships or depict premature maturity. On her canvases, Black children are able to frolic. But there are some works that gesture to struggle Black children face. While many of her works celebrate carefreeness, there are those with boxing gloves, as a recurring image, that allude to the fight that Black children, especially, encounter.
Roberts undermines stereotypes. In a sound and video installation titled What if, which allows viewers to enter a confessional booth of sorts, Roberts is again changing the language she’s using to converse about Black female identity. “I’m asking the audience to go inside this box and face yourself, so I have the names of those women and girls…We have a big mirror facing you and then the sound of a man talking about how sexualized Black girls are. The next part is a white woman saying, ‘that’s not my child, she has blond hair, she has blue eye, she’s a little me, she won’t cause any trouble.’” By looking at a mirror in a confessional booth, anyone who enters must come to terms with their complicity in sexualizing and stereotyping Black girls and women.
Roberts explained in a Spelman College Museum of Fine Art interview for her 2018 show Deborah Roberts: The Evolution of Mimi, “What I want as an artist is for the viewer to see that face, first and foremost, as the face of a child because that’s the image I think you need to come to. I tell my audiences that this is the idea—to ‘see’ that little girl! I am also hoping they see vulnerability, strength, and beauty. If you can find yourself in her face, then you can see and embrace your own humanity. Once you see me as human, then we can coexist equally. That’s the basis of the work.”
Roberts understands how difficult it is to achieve her level of notoriety in the artworld. “I can’t rest on my laurels and say a bunch of people like it. ‘Oh, my work is being collected by the Whitney Museum,’ all these great spaces, and stop growing. That’s never going to be my issue. I’m always going to be growing my work.”
Deborah Roberts: I’m is currently on view at Museum of Contemporary Art Denver through January 30, 2022. The exhibition will include collages, painting, sound and video installation, and text-based work on paper.