The powerful collages of artist Deborah Roberts

The powerful collages of artist Deborah Roberts

In a forthcoming show at The Contemporary Austin, the artist’s figurative amalgams celebrate Black identities while confronting some of the most pressing sociopolitical issues of the era

Often using collage as her tool of choice, the work of American artist Deborah Roberts weaves together the complexities of Black identity and gender politics. Empowered yet fractured, celebratory yet critical, her portraits confront systematic racism, stereotyping and societal beauty standards, particularly in the lives of Black children. 

Roberts’ mixed media works are compositionally and conceptually multifaceted. Her process involves compiling internet- and magazine-sourced portrait fragments, which she layers and combines with hand-painted details to create striking figurative amalgams on paper and canvas. These allude to the politically charged approaches of Cubist collage and Dada Photomontage movements that drew on the motifs of African masks and sculptures. 

Deborah Roberts, Portraits: When they look back (No. 3), 2020

Deborah Roberts, Portraits: When they look back (No. 3), 2020. Artwork © Deborah Roberts. Courtesy the artist; Vielmetter Los Angeles; and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photography by Paul Bardagjy

The title of Roberts’ forthcoming solo exhibition at The Contemporary Austin’s Jones Center, ‘I’m’, nods to the reclaiming of collective identity and asserts a sense of empowerment. Here, new collages and paintings are staged alongside an interactive sound, text, and video sculpture. Elsewhere, the artist turns her focus to racial biases in programmed software. In her ongoing series of silkscreen text pieces, the names of Black women are underlined in red, as if deemed erroneous or unrecognisable in a Microsoft Word document. 

In another striking extension to the show, Roberts has installed a vast figurative mural, Little Man, Little Man, on the museum’s facade. The title is taken from author and Civil Rights activist James Baldwin’s 1976 novel of the same name, which explores the challenges and delights of Black childhood. Roberts’ mural depicts a jubilant-looking young boy in six stages of gestural motion. As the artist describes of the work: ‘I wanted these collage works to demonstrate the emotional, celebratory energy of this young child as he tries to make his way into adulthood without being targeted or criminalised.’ 

Deborah Roberts, I see you (#5 of 24), 2019

Deborah Roberts, I see you (#5 of 24), 2019. Artwork © Deborah Roberts. Courtesy the artist; Vielmetter Los Angeles; and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photography by Mark Poucher

The exhibition also highlights Roberts’ recent shift to depict Black boys – in addition to girls – which seeks to address the burdens they face. ‘There’s more sadness in these works,’ says Roberts. ‘The same tropes that I use when depicting Black girls to show power, dominance, and agency comes across as showing fear; not their fear, but fear because of the violence and criminality that people have projected on them.’ §

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