Deborah Roberts: I’m

Deborah Roberts: I'm
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Presently on view at The Contemporary Austin, Texas is I’m by Deborah Roberts, her first solo museum exhibition in Texas. I’m features a selection of new collages and paintings, as well as a new interactive sound, text, and video sculpture. The exhibition is part of The Contemporary Austin’s participation in the Feminist Art Coalition, a nationwide initiative of art institutions which aims to generate awareness of feminist thought, experience, and action through exhibitions and events.

In tandem with this show, the museum has commissioned Roberts to create a new figurative mural on the exterior of the Jones Center building. Titled Little man, little man, the mural features collaged images of a young Black boy in various gestures of action and celebration, printed onto weather-resistant vinyl. The artist titled this work after author and civil rights activist James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man, 1976, a children’s book articulating the joys and struggles of Black childhood through the adventures of a four-year-old boy in Harlem, New York. As Roberts noted, “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 criminalized.

Deborah Roberts critiques notions of beauty, the body, race, and identity in contemporary society through the lens of Black children. Her mixed media works on paper and on canvas combine found images, sourced from the Internet, with hand-painted details in striking figural compositions that invite viewers to look closely, to see through the layers. She focuses her gaze on Black children—historically, and still today, among the most vulnerable members of our population—investigating how societal pressures, projected images of beauty or masculinity, and the violence of American racism conditions their experiences growing up in this country as well as how others perceive them. Simultaneously heroic and insecure, playful and serious, powerful and vulnerable, the figures Roberts depicts are complex, occasionally based on actual living or historical persons.

In addition to representational imagery, the artist also makes text works, juxtaposing words in ways that expose racism and racial biases entrenched in language and linguistic systems. For example, in her series of prints entitled Pluralism, 2016, the artist typed out in Microsoft Word a list of names commonly given to Black females (e.g., Denisha, Latifah, Mikayla, Shemika). The works show the result, as the software automatically underlined these names in red, signifying their incorrectness or non-recognition. These text works, like her collages and paintings, fit within the artist’s broader dialogue engaging American history, art history, black culture, and popular culture.

Roberts has long created images featuring young, Black female subjects. Dressed in brightly coloured clothing, including children’s fashions and African textiles, the figures have assumed various poses, some of them improbable and surreal, with arms outstretched and, occasionally, oversized boxing mitts on one or both hands.

Deborah Roberts: I’m runs until 15 August at The Contemporary Austin, Texas.

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