"Deborah Roberts: I'm" at the Contemporary Austin
In the exhibition at the Contemporary Austin, we learn what it is to be seen and not seen
Look the girl in the eyes.
What do you see?
The eyes of a child? An adult? Both?
Is there boldness in them? Apprehension? Joy? Fear?
The more you meet the gaze of the girls and boys in Deborah Roberts' compelling, challenging collages, the more you see. In these Black children you discover a multiplicity of feelings and attitudes, youth and age fused together, symbols at once seemingly innocuous and racist. In them you may see something about the child or something about how society views the child. Or you may see something about yourself.
This is all because of the care with which Roberts creates her works, how she positions each figure, the posture and demeanor telling one story; clothes each one, layering on color, print, and pattern (its own story); and, most dramatically, constructs each face of different photographs – say, one eye of a young girl, the other of a middle-aged man, the lips of a mature woman – the faces telling many stories, all of them complex.
Look just one of Roberts' girls or boys in the eyes, spend time meeting her gaze or his, and you'll see why the Contemporary Austin is giving this hometown artist a major exhibition, why the show – "Deborah Roberts: I'm" – has been eagerly anticipated by artists and art lovers here and elsewhere, and why Roberts' work has been embraced by the international art world. In her children we can see important truths.
i'm an artist
Roberts came to art early.
When she was 8, she discovered art as a method of exchange. She liked to draw, and other kids liked what she drew (Michael Jackson being a favorite subject), so they would trade their pencils for her drawings. (Of course, that just encouraged her to make more drawings.)
Later, she came to see art as a means of coping with life. As she grew older and faced painful times – not just adolescence but full-blown racism when she was bused from her East Austin school to Travis Heights – art gave her relief, somewhere to go, some way to be happy. She stayed with it and made it her major at North Texas University, despite the fact that her working parents – her mother a housekeeper, her father an electrical lineman – didn't see art as anything but a hobby. After coming back to Austin, Roberts spent several summers sharing this aspect of art with local teens in a program called "Success Comes in Cans, Not Can'ts," a well-received effort that earned her one of President George H.W. Bush's Point of Light awards.
By this time, art had also become a form of personal expression for Roberts as well – not just a way to change her feelings but an outlet for putting her feelings in the world, whatever they were. Then, they involved something that society didn't see much of but she did: Black families who were happy. So in her art she celebrated the Eastside life she knew, its pleasures and sense of community, working in a figurative style that evoked Norman Rockwell, which gave the work a romantic quality. It attracted attention and buyers, though not enough to keep her from having to take day jobs, even after she opened a gallery in West Lake Hills – that business, called Not Just Art, had to be a frame shop, too. And so it went through Roberts' 30s and 40s: a little recognition here and there – solo shows at UT and in San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and Chicago; an Artist of the Year award from the Austin Critics Table – but still just getting by.
After a few decades of this, Roberts needed a change. So at age 49, the lifelong Austinite took the unusual step of entering graduate school. In upstate New York. Where the school hadn't had a Black student in three decades. Who does that?
At Syracuse University, Roberts found the space and time to take her work in a new direction. She was still focused on Black life and what society doesn't see of it, but now she added aspects of what society sees instead. Inspired by the writings of Cornel West, Roberts began to explore how Black bodies are seen and treated, how Black identity is formed – and malformed – by white culture. She was especially drawn to Black girls and how they're seen: as not fulfilling certain standards of beauty, as being older than they are (in particular, more mature sexually), as being less than white. These girls became her subjects, with Roberts seeking ways to depict the conflicting perceptions of them, in society and in the girls themselves. In time, this led Roberts to collage, a form that clicked for her – one able to hold multiple ideas in a single image. What if this child's face had skin lighter on one side and darker on the other, had James Baldwin's eye, Michelle Obama's lips? What if her fist belonged to Muhammad Ali? What if she clasped her hands, held a boxing glove, wore a crown?
Boom! The fusing of these disparate photographic elements in individual portraits was like the smashing of atoms, making images that were dynamic and powerful. They also created a prism within the frame that refracted each Black girl's life into her present, past, and future; her reality and her aspiration; her power and her vulnerability; the girl she chooses to be and the girl (or woman) others want her to be. But no matter how complicated the images, they were always laid on the foundation of girlhood. Roberts started from a place of innocence and reinforced it with visual components – slender arms, reed-thin legs, bold and playful prints on the clothes, bows in the hair – that kept viewers conscious they were looking at a child. And for that reason, the girls always remained beautiful.
Roberts had made the leap to a new place, and she knew it. Now, she was ready to make the leap from her hometown, to start fresh in Philadelphia. But as often happens, money got in the way. She couldn't afford the move, so once she had her MFA from Syracuse, she came back to Austin, back to a few scattered shows and a wage job to keep herself going. Save for a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which helped her focus on her art for a while, her life looked like it might stay that same-old same-old.
But then ....
In 2017, Roberts had some of her work included in the exhibition "Your Body Is a Battleground" at the Volta Art Fair in New York. And it was seen, seen like her work hadn't been seen before. It was looked at, it was buzzed about, and it was bought. Every piece was bought. And not long after, more pieces were bought – three by Beyoncé. Before the year was out, the Studio Museum in Harlem, which had acquired some of Roberts' work at Volta, promptly put her in its group show "Fictions" and made it the face of the show. Roberts calls that "the moment I arrived in the art world."
And so it was. The next year, Roberts received a major solo show/retrospective, "The Evolution of Mimi," at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta (that's "major" as in 80 works from 2007 to 2017, charting her shift from figurative painting to collage). And on top of that, she had two other solo shows in California, was in eight group shows across the U.S., and had a Fountainhead residency in Miami. 2019 was even more memorable, with solo shows at the two prestigious galleries that had begun representing Roberts, Vielmetter Los Angeles and Stephen Friedman Gallery in London; a residency with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation; and the inclusion of a work in the "American Portraiture Today" exhibition at the Smithsonian National Gallery.
i'm still exploring
That work in the National Gallery was from a series inspired by George Stinney Jr., the 14-year-old African American boy who, in the 1940s, was wrongfully convicted of murdering two white girls and executed. That Roberts made collages with an African American boy as the subject is one sign of her continuing artistic evolution. The line from George Stinney Jr. to Tamir Rice is, tragically, not long; Black boys, like Black girls, are often perceived as older than they are by racists. The denial of their youth, the theft of their innocence, the corruption of their identities propelled Roberts into new territory with her collages, as is evident at the Contemporary Austin. Works such as Jamal and this is who i am show boys in repose – accent on boys – who pose no threat but who live in danger of their lives because people with guns – often white, often police – see them as men.
Seen and not seen. Roberts keeps showing us the profound difference being seen and not seen has for Black Americans – often a life-and-death difference. Who sees how many African American wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, girlfriends go missing every year? Near the end of "Deborah Roberts: I'm" are four works in the vein of Roberts' other collages through the show – portraits of girls with faces composed of various photos – but instead of white space around the figures, the space is all black, deep black that the figures almost vanish into. Only pale blue outlines keep the girls from being swallowed in shadow. Here, Roberts takes a different approach to showing us how invisible – how "not seen" – those missing girls and women are.
On the opposite wall are works with no figures at all, only words. Two involve names: "La'Condrea is a noun" and "Anqwenique is as mild as milk." In the former, underneath the name La'Condrea is the wavy red line that writing software uses to indicate a word is misspelled. The name is seen but not really seen – not as a legitimate name by many whites. They question it, mock it, denigrate it, and so make it one more part of Black culture that's less than white. Communicating this through pure text is another departure from Roberts' other work here, but its directness gives it power.
That's even more true of the show's interactive installation, a riff on the Catholic confessional booth. Inside, the walls are covered with names in the style of the soldiers' names on the Vietnam Memorial. Here, they're all first names like La'Condrea and Anqwenique and Tawanna. In our interview, Roberts said they belong to Black women who are missing, their fates unknown. On one side of the booth, the viewer sees video of women who, as Roberts says, do not look like a Tawanna or a Shamika, read their names preceded by the phrase, "My name is ...." On the other side, the viewer sits facing a mirror as audio plays of men making degrading, sexist comments about Black girls and women. Seen and not seen is taken from the abstract and put in your face. What do you see? What do you see in these names when you think of men abusing the women those names belong to? What do you see in yourself?
The questions Roberts asks there are of a piece with those in her other works. She's just doing more of what she did at Syracuse: taking her work in new directions, evolving.
The last few years have been a heady ride for Roberts. After some 35 years of relative obscurity showing in tiny galleries, selling work for a few hundred bucks, to be thrust into the world of international acclaim with pieces going for five and six figures to marquee names has been exhilarating. It's freed her to get a studio so she can work someplace other than the place she lives. It's freed her to buy a house. But it's also meant more shows, and shows come with schedules and deadlines for work to be completed and other demands.
Much has been made of the purchases of Roberts' work by high-wattage celebs – Beyoncé, Ava DuVernay, Barack Obama – which no doubt pleases Roberts as well as her gallerists. But she may be more pleased that her work has been acquired by such institutions as the Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art. In the Sixties and Seventies, there weren't many places young Deborah could see herself in mainstream culture. Museums were one. They were also the rare space where a Black girl who considered herself an artist could learn about painting. So Roberts has made a point of having her galleries sell her work to museums. She's said that's so "someone who looks like me can be inspired by my work and think, 'I could do this, too.'"
With the Blanton Museum of Art having acquired some of Roberts' art, maybe that girl could be in Austin and grow up to be an artist here. That last part – being an artist here – might not be something Roberts could recommend, given her own experience. "There are no heroes at home," she said in our interview. "People see people for one thing, and they don't allow the other thing to happen. I thought I was doing good work [here]. I thought I was sending the message that I wanted to get out, but I didn't know. I didn't feel seen – not so much with attention but the idea of I've been saying this for a very long time. When people saw me in New York, they saw the fullness of my work and what I was trying to say."
So she's come back home to her first major museum exhibition in Texas with "a lot of emotions, not all of them good." Still, this is where her family is. And she's found some fellow artists here who share her ideas about art and career and thinking globally about both. So Austin is "okay for me now. I've made a commitment to stay here. And I'm just gonna continue to do my thing and do it the best I can. I want to show the people who kind of caged me in that idea that they thought I was that I was more than that. I was more than that all along."
But she'll do it with one key difference:
"I feel seen now."
“Deborah Roberts: I’m” is on view through Aug. 15 at the Contemporary Austin – Jones Center, 700 Congress. For more information, visit www.thecontemporaryaustin.org.