Deborah Roberts is a multimedia visual artist from Austin, Texas. She is one of the emerging artists featured in Fictions, the fifth installment of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s “F series.” Working primarily in collage, she explores the social construction of beauty and its impact on racial identity and consciousness. Using art history, pop-culture, American history and Black culture, she focuses on power and its relation to self-perception. By centering the experiences of young black girls in her intricate portraits, she highlights those features that are at the helm of both scrutiny and admiration. In doing so, she brings attention to the need for more inclusive ideals of beauty. On the heels of Fictions and approaching her first solo exhibition in-gé-nue at Fort Gansevoort in New York, I got a chance to get know her better.
Amarie Gipson: When did you know that you wanted to become an artist?
Deborah Roberts: I knew I wanted to be an artist in the third grade. I even remember the classroom I was in.
AG: That’s really early.
DR: I just knew it. I remember liking this little boy named Rudolph in my class who would always draw racing cars. I started drawing cars too, and then mine started getting better. Next thing I knew, I didn’t like Rudolph anymore but I liked drawing. I would draw and trade the drawings for notebook paper and other things. That became my first currency as an artist.
AG: Is this decision you made as a young girl one of the reasons you decided to focus on young black girls in your work?
DR: What I aim to do is show the power of these little girls early on, and to think about how we become the women we are today. Just like trauma is passed on, so is our identity. Society says that little black girls are already less innocent. I want the girls in my work to be a bit sassy, and I also want them to be innocent. She’s a little girl, not a grown woman. One of the things I try to do is encourage the figures in my work to own black beauty, for them to know the power of that beauty and to recognize that they don’t have to want long, blond hair in order to be considered beautiful.
AG: Can you talk about the trajectory of your practice?
DR: I was living as an artist and working primarily in black romanticism — painting black people in churches, very nostalgic type of work. My older work was inspired by Norman Rockwell and Black Americana. At 33, my work started to become more abstract, less defined and less structurally sound. These were the first signs of change. When I noticed that the work was changing, I resisted. I had people in my ear telling me to keep it constant was because I was successful. I had everything an artist could want— my work was recognized, I was selling, and I was getting shows. So I squashed the change for about two years. I remember when Austin Business Journal asked me to do a cover, they thought they were going to get black romanticism. Instead, they got an abstracted black woman, singing the blues. After that, I took the summer off and let the work take its course. I feel like I’m still waiting for the end of that summer. The work took over me and brought me to where I am today.
AG: It’s really important to hear you say that— how crucial it is to honor the direction that your work is pushing towards.
DR: I think a lot of artists go through this, and you can’t help it. Just let the work change and don’t squash that change out of fear or doubt.
AG: What has the journey been like as you’ve gained more recognition for your work? How have you been able to situate yourself in the ‘art world’?
DR: It has been a rough adjustment, to be honest. It’s been crazy for me because I’ve worked so hard, and I can’t believe it’s finally happening. I would have never thought that super celebrities would be looking at my work or even knew who I am. It’s always been a dream of mine to make it to the Studio Museum in Harlem – now my work is featured in the Fictions exhibition and on the cover of the Museum’s magazine. It’s beautiful and I am so very grateful. I’m getting a better handle on it all. I’m learning that it’s okay to keep my own pace and not give in to the pressure of fulfilling the demand for the work.
AG: Back in 2014, I first saw your work in your solo show, One and Many at Art Palace in Houston, Texas. The scale was much smaller, and you even used photos of your younger self in the work. How else has your work changed in the past few years, as you grow deeper into collage?
DR: My collage work really just started in the last eight years. The work in One and Many was work done right out of graduate school. The next body that came after it was more experimental. I tried manipulating the format, but I realized it didn’t feel the same. So I did my research and found a group of girls’ faces that I felt were talking to the ideas I wanted to make. Their faces were much more demanding and their gaze was right in your face. I am a painter by nature, and I was used to making portraiture. What I found with collage is that I can force the viewer to try and locate the multiple faces. I think people believe that collage is something that’s much easier to do than actually painting faces. It’s definitely not. Romare Bearden and Hannah Hoch made collage seem so effortless. That’s something that I have tried to do in my own work. I wanted to know how I could use the technique of collage to still tell stories in multiple ways.
AG: How do you think your practice is being affected by this current political climate?
DR: The world is a mess. This guy is playing “dare you” with North Korea, and the bold openness of white nationalism has caused me to focus more on black beauty and black patriotism. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to really tap into my creative zone because of the constant political anxiety that we are facing. I normally have that at least three times a year. It’s the moment when the work just spills out, and I’ve only had it once this year.
AG: It’s so interesting that you mention tapping into your zone. A sense of urgency has washed over our everyday lives. There’s this pressure of being a black artist and expected to make work that speaks to the everyday conditions in order to be a catalyst for the change that could improve those conditions. In the past, it was restrictive, but now it seems more and more prevalent.
DR: You want the work to make sense and you want to meet that demand. But how can you do it, and still not lose yourself? We’ve always lived in the past and the present at the same time, and that’s what the work is saying. It demands strength and power.
AG: There are so many layers of meaning in your work with all the different cultural material that you reference. From their hair to their fingernails, you build these little black girls to be complex. What do you hope viewers take away from your work?
DR: I’m always wondering — why can’t society see us for who we are? If you want to see black people, black girls as this monolithic being, I’m going to reject that. When you look at my work, you have to look at every part of the face and make something out of those fragments. That’s one of the gifts of the work — to see people differently, and not just as one being. Blackness is global.
AG: How do you predict will your work evolve given you said that you are still in the “never-ending summer?”
DR: I would like to be working towards black boys and focusing on what they experience as young as the third grade. In thinking about black males -— how can we focus on them before they are considered men? I also want to work with bigger sizes and use different materials. I love the fragile nature of paper and I think it also speaks to the fragility of black bodies. Paper is just so easily destroyed, but I love working with it and I think there’s a lot of possibility in that.
Amarie Gipson is an arts worker and writer based in Austin, Texas. She is a second-year Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in the Department of Prints and Drawings and Publications Assistant in the Curatorial Department at The Contemporary Austin.