The pages of the history of photomontage are sketched in the blood of resistance.
Deborah Roberts, whose exhibition “Uninterrupted” continues at Jenkins Johnson Gallery through March 17, embraces that history and, with it, all the power of the technique to redistribute flaccid photographic fact into truthful dissent. Her images, graphically stimulating, gradually come together as a challenge to the conscience as well.
Almost from the beginning of photography, amateurs developed the technique of creating new images from selected remnants of photographs and, later, from shards of magazine reproductions. Women especially often recombined pictorial elements as part of the popular scrapbook hobby, and in the practice found an outlet for expression rare for the time — even if their voices remained confined to personal albums.
In Germany, beginning in the second decade of the 20th century, John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch independently pushed the technique toward artistic ends that were pointedly social and political. Heartfield famously used it in a very public rebuke of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Hoch didn’t have a magazine outlet as Heartfield did, but works with titles like “Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany” (1919) left little doubt where she stood.
In her contemporary montages, all dated 2017 or 2018, Roberts borrows from pictures famous and obscure to create her own image of African American girlhood, androgynous and empowered.
Often, hands and other body parts are obviously sourced from photos of adults — generally women, but “Baldwin’s Promise” gives to one figure the unmistakable eyes of writer James Baldwin. Those eyes might be sculpted from ebony by a master carver, so deeply incised, so unbreakable, so expressive are they.
Splintery features assemble into Cubist wholes. These are not broken victims, they are rugged Transformers, ready for action.
Each figure is a collection of emotions, a multiplicity of gestures and expressions. They are diverse in color, too, as if to make clear that there is no one tone, of skin or of voice, that can encompass the black experience.
Or the experience, even, of a single individual. Roberts’ girl-women have their own identity, yet they stand for all.