On ViewThe Contemporary Austin
January 23 – August 15, 2021
Deborah Roberts: I’m, now on view at The Contemporary Austin, is the artist’s first solo museum show in Texas. It’s also a hometown affair. Roberts, who is from Austin, has spent the last decade—and a lifetime—working toward this moment. After many years of figurative painting, Roberts went back for an MFA in her late 40s, enrolling in the program at Syracuse University, where her practice evolved into photo-based collage. Not long after, things took off: her work started appearing in major museums both here and abroad. Beyoncé bought three, and other icons followed suit. Now 58, Roberts is back in Austin—but out in the world.
I’m features all new work, including figural collage with hand-painted elements and two firsts for the artist: an interactive installation and a grand-scale mural on the building’s exterior. COVID unsurprisingly postponed the show’s opening from September, a strange silver lining which meant more time in the studio. Roberts has acknowledged that the extraordinary events of 2020 began pushing their way into the work. Portraits of Black children took on new meaning after months of lockdown and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. Half a year later, her “kids,” as she calls them, finally occupy The Contemporary’s first floor, challenging a dominant society that all too often denies their beauty and humanity.
“I wanted to throw the kitchen sink at this show,” Roberts professed in an interview with fellow Austin artist Betelhem Makonnen last summer. I’m is a testament to her very fine throwing skills. Best known for mixed-media portraits of young African American girls, Roberts has increasingly turned her attention to their adolescent counterparts. Little man, little man (2020), a mural installed on the museum’s southern wall early last fall, shows a collaged boy, printed on weather-resistant vinyl, dancing in a variety of poses against a white background. The mural’s title is taken from a 1976 children’s book by James Baldwin, about a small Black boy growing up in Harlem. The figure on the museum wall, in all his playful iterations, moves freely within that white space, all but weightless.
Roberts's ample use of the white plane is a visual cue for the activism in her art. The Black subjects in her images contend with this white setting in ways that suggest its power to engulf, confine, and, at times, just plain annoy. Fighting all the ISM (2019) shows a young girl sitting cross-legged against that omnipresent white. She’s doing a typical “criss-cross applesauce,” but her positioning on the canvas’ top half makes it look like a kind of yogic levitation. A young bodhisattva already on the path, her palms push back against the unenlightened. As with all of Roberts’s collages, the viewer is instantly drawn to the subject’s face, a composite of features greater than the sum of its parts. The eyes are a time collapse of ancestry and identity; bodies formed from other bodies to become whole, taking down the “ISM” of race and gender along the way.
Jamal (2020) depicts a teenage boy going through a growth spurt, right there on the canvas, as his Timberland boot pushes off the white edge. “You start to see these figures really taking ownership of the space,” says I’m curator Heather Pesanti. “It’s something that seems to have developed during the pandemic. If you look at Deborah’s earlier works, you see a lot of small figures and a lot of white backgrounds.” The white backgrounds, however, have been done away with altogether in Roberts’s “Portraits” series, which introduces Black figures delineated carefully on black canvas. Roberts’s colors have gone considerably darker in these works, where something as simple as a single red button stands out like an amulet. The subjects’ gold fingernails, a detail also found in the works on white canvas, seem almost preternatural within this new context.
What if (2020), Roberts’s very first installation, is the heartbeat of the exhibition, a Catholic confessional for America’s original sin. On one side of a curtained booth, we find a mirror and set of names memorializing the hundreds of African American women who went missing in 2020. Audio of a man growling about young Black girls clashes with a female voice praising pretty white princesses. On the other side, video of a quick collage in the making—Roberts layers her images like a card dealer. Here, the recorded words of James Baldwin get tangled up in the taunts of a Karen caught on a cell phone camera. The dealing continues with clips of blond actresses blithely reciting African female names, invoking Roberts’s ongoing, “Pluralism” series, which is represented in The Contemporary show by three text-driven works on paper exploring the implicit bias of language.
What if is a confession without a priest, a conversation in need of its country. Roberts’s installation, and the show in general, invites self-reflection: I’m is about us, and a movement always fighting for its moment.