Deborah Roberts’ black girls are beautiful in their incongruity. The images celebrate what it means to contain multitudes.
Their most obvious precedent is the collage work of Romare Bearden, who documented African American life in the 1960s in dynamic compositions that channeled the energy of music. Roberts’ portraits also feel musical, incorporating bold prints, bright colors and dramatic shifts in scale and perspective, but her eclecticism is much quieter. Her girls appear isolated on white grounds, the center of attention.
Most of them gaze out at the viewer, although their visages are amalgams of several faces. In “Political Lamb #3,” the girl gazes in two directions: one eye trained on us, the other in profile. Two of her four arms hold a numbered card up to her chest, as in a mug shot. The gravity of this detail belies the perky bows in her braided hair.
The arms and hands of older women appear throughout. In “Here before, here after,” a sweet girl wearing a tiara has hands that are startlingly wrinkled and gnarled, suggesting wisdom beyond her years. The outstretched, outsized hand in “The step back” is also clearly a grown-up’s. The subject’s other hand is clad in a bright red boxing glove. These girls, incorporating the experience of their elders, are not to be messed with.
Eclecticism also appears in text works that are simply lists of names. Monikers like “Sharkesha,” “Raeschell” and “Shonique” fuse and twist various linguistic traditions in the same way as the collages. They are creative refusals to be contained by any one culture or category.
Roberts’ works capture perfectly what it feels like to have assumptions and expectations foisted upon you, to feel like a collection of pieces instead of a person. If you are lucky, you will also be buoyed and strengthened by the traces of those who came before, in the creation of someone unprecedented.