Updated: Jul 3
Deborah Roberts, 'The Black Effect', 2022. Mixed media and collage on canvas165.1 x 114.3cm (65 x 45in) Framed: 170.4 x 119.8cm (67 1/8 x 47 1/8in). Copyright Deborah Roberts. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.
If a picture paints a thousand words a collage paints a million! And so I discovered during a compelling broadcast interview with American contemporary artist Deborah Roberts, courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery. With her show launching in London at the time, she talks with British writer, journalist and curator Ekow Eshun. Their conversation uncovers a myriad of interconnected themes, influences and concepts that are as perplexing as they are enlightening.
Deborah Roberts, 2021. Photo by Moyo Oyelola. Courtesy Deborah Roberts and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.
Roberts’ work explores the politics of race, identity and gender and poignantly uses collage to draw attention to the disregard of black children's innocence, a situation which often criminalises and sexualises them.
A case in point ‘The Body Remembers’, the centrepiece of her recent show I Have Something To Tell You is the artist’s incandescent response to the distressing case of Child Q, the 15 year old black schoolgirl who was strip searched by the London police on suspicion of possessing Marijuana. Roberts describes this act as stripping the girl of her humanity.
The piece features a fully clothed girl with dual-directional faces, bending over in the position of an internal examination during a strip search. The faces and enlarged eyes are intended to be symbolic of the world’s gaze on this disturbing act. The viewer is forced to make direct eye contact and in so doing, see the child's humanity.
Deborah Roberts, 'The body remembers', 2022. Mixed media and collage on canvas, 165.1 x 114.3cm (65 x 45in). Framed: 170.5 x 119.8 cm (67 1/8 x 47 1/8 in). Copyright Deborah Roberts. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.
Heart and cherry motifs on her clothing serve to underpin the figure's identity as an innocent minor and to restore her dignity. Roberts also uses multiple faces to suggest this is not the first time such humiliation has been endured by black children. Indeed this unleashes an uneasy memory of a harrowing incident at my own school back in the mid 1970’s when a troubled black teenage girl had been physically extracted from the playground by two police officers and whisked away in a black Mariah police van normally used to transport prisoners.
This formidable artist challenges notions of visibility and invisibility and highlights the importance of seeing people holistically and respecting their identity. There is a clear call for people and society to ‘do better’.
Deborah Roberts 'Consequences of being', 2022. Mixed media and collage on paper 76.2 x 55.9cm (30 x 22in) Framed: 87 x 67cm (34 1/4 x 26 3/8in). Copyright Deborah Roberts. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.
The conversation between Eshun and Roberts turns to the artist’s move towards the medium of collage which started around 2007. For Roberts, collage is a way to talk about race, gender and politics. She describes it as a pathway to contradict the ‘monolithic idea of blackness’, and to reflect the multiple faces of the black experience. Her key point here is that we have to move forward in life but our body and our mind remembers things.
Fragmentation and multiplicity are further sublayers relevant to Roberts’ collages. The medium, she explains has helped people throughout history to ‘gain agency’ in the socio-economic and political world. Fracturing one’s image shows diverse sides of that person and enables multiple ways of looking at them. The image has a ‘fragility’, she explains, meaning what we see, does not imply the wholeness of a person. For sure that’s true.
Double-consciousness, is another concept visualised through the ‘fractured’ gaze in Robert’s work. Explaining this further, she cites the example of living in two Americas, the America of interacting with fellow black people and the America in which one interacts with non black people, a duality, she stresses that is needed for survival as a black person in the U.S.
Roberts delves further into the process of collage as a medium. Far from being just about cutting paper and sticking pieces back together as one might imagine, she fluidly describes it as an act of building and creating, of adding, assessing and taking away, of merging and overlaying and a process through which one can represent the past as well as the present.
Deborah Roberts, 'Yo Picasso', 2022. Mixed media and collage on paper, 76.2 x 55.9cm (30 x 22in). Framed: 87 x 67cm (34 1/4 x 26 3/8in). Private Collection. Copyright Deborah Roberts. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Photo by Colin Boyle.
The Picasso influence
Discussions move on to a piece entitled ‘Yo Picasso’. We discover that the diamond pattern featured in a number of Roberts’ works relates to Picasso’s negro period. She explains that between 1901-1905, Picasso used a diamond style pattern that he possibly saw or appropriated from Africa. Roberts overtly takes what Picasso had taken and applies it to her own work. She uses the same colours that he used, blue and white, orange and yellow. Colours are applied faintly so the black can be seen through the patterned veil and to stamp the pattern’s African origin. The title ‘Yo Picasso’ borrows current vernacular so that the conversation speaks easily to young people.
2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death, and in that context Roberts says she wants to talk further about his exploration into Africa, and highlight the ‘backhanded’ compliment present in his work.
In terms of the future, Roberts is looking for time and space to allow new ideas to ‘brew’. She sees her work shifting towards more fracturing without completely losing the human figurative element so that ‘approachability’ and ‘understandability’ are not compromised. Bringing people into the dialogue is for the artist enormously important. Reading is also a priority, and she describes literature as the ‘missing component' of her work.
This blog post reflects just a part of the spectrum of topics touched upon. Overwhelming in parts perhaps, but nonetheless fascinating. In her words, she is trying to tell the story of human beings that people don’t want to hear all the time. 'It is stressful but never a burden. It is joyful but never always happy’.
Is her work autobiographical in some way? Yes, she has come to recognise that it is.
For further information about Deborah Roberts visit: https://www.stephenfriedman.com
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