Artist Deborah Roberts creates African-American girls with braids and smiles and inquisitive looks, but she collages them from different images — as if they were jigsaw pieces from entirely different puzzles. The pieces both match and are ill-fitting. A hand comes out of nowhere. Eyes are multiplied and misaligned. A face has different mouths. But like other artworks that distort their subjects through unconventional perspectives — think of Pablo Picasso’s Dora Maar au Chat or Romare Bearden’s Evening, 9:10, 461 Lenox Avenue — Roberts’ girls are better off because of their artistic idiosyncrasies.
So is Roberts. Her unique collages have become a kind of trademark, and the Austin artist has exhibited her work with increasing acclaim. Her new exhibit at San Francisco’s Jenkins Johnson Gallery, “Uninterrupted,” is a chance to re-articulate her vision. Roberts says her girls challenge people’s generalized notions of Blackness — notions that can distort how non-Blacks think of African-Americans, and how African-Americans, including girls, think of themselves.
“To me, Black beauty has always been put on the back burner,” Roberts says by phone from Austin. “And what I’m saying is that it doesn’t start when we’re 25. The idea of who we are starts when we’re young. There’s a lot of scholarship out there about how Black girls are seen as less innocent. That is not true. There’s a cultural aspect to being sassy and bright — and that comes off as being more worldly and more sexual, when it’s not.”
Roberts, who has studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and has an MFA from Syracuse University, began doing collage work about eight years ago — after doing more conventional paintings for many years. The mid-career switchover from what she has called “Black romanticism” caused consternation among art-goers who were used to her more straightforward art. Roberts changed anyway. Her collage works seem more honest. More thought-provoking. More of how Roberts was experiencing the world.
“I was doing my Black romantic painting, like Norman Rockwell,” Roberts says. “The stories I was seeing portrayed on TV and the images that I was working on didn’t match up. I was talking about the Black idyllic life. And how beautiful and wonderful that was. But the images I saw on TV were Black people walking around in handcuffs. Drug-dealers. Things like that.
“Collage really works,” she adds, “because it forces you to break the picture up — to see individual people [distilled] into one face. That’s why it works for me. It helps people try to find several faces in there, not just one.”
For her collages, Roberts amalgamates images from a disparate range of sources — and people like Michelle Obama and Gloria Steinem (or at least parts of them) have made appearances in Roberts’ work. Her new exhibit’s title references Roberts’ ideas about her life and the lives of other African-American women.
“ ‘Uninterrupted’ talks to the notion that ‘I started from the time I was born, and that nothing is going to interrupt me into becoming the woman that I am,’ ” she says. “The work I put into the show — all the girls are very powerful in their stance.”
President Donald Trump’s election — and the national and international conversations about his views on race — give “Uninterrupted” a timeliness that Roberts doesn’t shy away from.
“As an artist, you want to be an artifact in this time period,” she says. “And 50, 60 years from now, if someone looks at this time period, all the angst of this time. they can look at the work and say, ‘Deborah was really talking about trying to see me — and Blackness — as human.’ Any time you can say, ‘I am human’ instead of ‘I am Black,’ that’s better. Because when people see you as a human, they see themselves in you.”
Deborah Roberts’ “Uninterrupted,” Feb. 1-March 17, at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, jenkinsjohnsongallery.com