Deborah Roberts’s collages and text-based work confront the rigidity of beauty standards and popular culture that privilege whiteness and youth. Sourcing image fragments from historical and contemporary periodicals, Roberts creates compositions of African-American women that subvert stereotypes with biting humor. These figures variously contort, cannibalize themselves and prepare to fight imaginary opponents. Roberts confronts the hypersexualization of black pre-adolescent girls, along with ancient myths about vagina dentata, in The Lion and The Lamb, 2016. Here, an oversize mouth with a gold-capped ‘grill’ is placed over a young girl’s crotch. Elsewhere, Roberts’s figures don signifiers of wealth, holiness and patriotism, like gold-painted nails or American flag shoes. A new collage series takes its inspiration from the August 4, 1967 Life magazine issue reporting on the Los Angeles riots. Following coverage of the revolts, an article features white redheaded women under 21 having fun. Their tousled hairstyles, which look more like flames, crown the heads of several figures. The serigraph text piece Ain’t I A Woman, too?, 2017, bears the title of abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s most famous speech, along with first names typically given to African-American girls. The work alludes to language’s constant evolution; a naming tradition originated to reclaim one’s heritage is today assigned a new set of cultural meanings.
— Wendy Vogel
Deborah Roberts’ second solo exhibition at Art Palace continues to address Black women’s progression through centuries of socially-constructed limits on beauty and power. Roberts advances her mixed-media portraits of motley girls, appropriated limbs, torsos, facial features, and hair styles. Each portrait, and their sum, is a conscious remark about inclusion and dignity in contemporary culture. Combining mature pouty lips and posture with child-like bare feet, school-girl plaid, and twisted pigtails, Roberts comments on the sexualization of pre-teen Black women: Black girls are not asked to be young. Each collaged element carries different scale, complexion, age, and personality, fusing together into a picture of otherness with unique character and agency.
For this exhibition, Roberts adds focus to text, addressing the stigma of urban-sounding names, colorism, and natural hair, divisive issues rooted in Black cultural identity. Loaded phrases, rhythmically printed and painted across the works resemble chants of protest. Roberts is locating her work within a history of raised voices, providing future cultural artifacts during this climate of civil unrest. Working in the vein of social commentary, Roberts consistently and skillfully relates the weight of beauty, perception, and honor to the greater life experience for people of color.
Deborah Roberts is a 2016-2017 Pollock-Krasner grantee. She is a recipient of the Ginsberg-Klaus Fellowship, the Presidential Point of Light, and Syracuse Graduate Fellow Award. Recent honors include exhibitions at the George Washington Carver Museum (Austin TX,) the National Museum of Mexican Art (Chicago IL,) and ongoing participation in the Viewing Program at the Drawing Center (New York NY.) Roberts completed the Ox-Bow Art Residency and earned her MFA from Syracuse University. Roberts lives and works in Austin, TX.