‘Deborah Roberts: I’m’ Opens at Cummer Museum of Art And Gardens in Jacksonville for Final Stop of National Tour


Black bodies in white spaces.

The artwork of Deborah Roberts literally and figuratively reflects black bodies in white spaces.

Her combination of collage and brushwork places black children against a pure white background. The black bodies she puts on canvas increasingly find their way into one of the whitest spaces in America: art museums.

Roberts’ (b. 1962) fresh and provocative collages have rocked the art world since moving from Austin to New York in 2017 to continue her career. After a long, slow climb up the ladder, she is now at the pinnacle of contemporary art in America. An essential living artist in this country.

Her groundbreaking exhibit, “Deborah Roberts: I’m,” opened September 16 at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, where it will remain on display until December 4, 2022.

The show was hosted by The Contemporary Austin and planning began prior to COVID. During the pandemic, Roberts unexpectedly noticed that her collages and their figures changed.

“They got bigger during COVID and the idea was that white space is no longer important,” Roberts explained during a media preview for “I’m” at the Cummer Museum. “Right now I’m trying to survive.”

Visitors will see this clearly. The bending boy in Cock-a-doodle-doo (2019) occupies only the edge of his painting; white space dominates. jamal (2020) fills the image plane, whiteness squeezed to the margins.

The children Robert depicts are all between eight and twelve years old.

“Then I started putting on my gloves to defend who I was,” she said, adding, “I’m trying to empower these kids, but for people to see them as kids too and let them into the world as kids.” exist until they’re adults.”

Slowly maturing into adulthood is another white privilege that black children don’t enjoy.

Study, after study, after study exposes how black girls are disadvantaged in school and by law enforcement. The Jacksonville-based Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center found that in 2019-2020, black girls in Florida represented 45 percent of girls arrested, 47 percent of girls incarcerated, 52 percent of girls on probation, and 52 percent of girls who to the adult criminal justice system, despite making up just 21 percent of Florida’s 10- to 17-year-old population. Black girls accounted for 83 percent of the 15 girls under 10 who were arrested and 55 percent of the 524 girls aged 12 and under who were arrested.

“When little black girls get on a bus and start yelling and screaming, they cause a problem. They’re out of control,” Roberts explained about how common childhood behaviors are observed by black children. “It is not the same that little white children (experience). They are just (are) stupid little girls.”

Roberts has seen this phenomenon emerge as a result of her artwork. For years she only depicted black girls in her artworks, recently she shows boys.

Kings have their heads chopped off photos three black guys huddled together.

“Oh, they didn’t do anything right,” she recalls being told by a collector when she saw the piece. “I was like, ‘no, not really.’ This is your perception of the job that they’re up to no good and it’s just guys hanging out.”

That person did not join Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and the Obamas in acquiring artwork by Deborah Roberts. kings title refers to a Jay-Z text.

Roberts’ artwork reveals the implicit racism in societal norms of beauty, decorum and value for black children, while providing insight into what it means to grow up black in America.

“Growing up, you couldn’t look people in the face, you had to look down, lower your eyes,” Roberts said. “I want these kids to look you in the face, have a conversation with you, be strong. You are no less than. That is why all the works have that one (eye) glance straight at you.”

Why Jacksonville?

After exhibiting in Austin, Denver and Los Angeles, “I’m” concludes its tour at the Cummer, the only venue on the East Coast. Credit for that coup goes to the Cummer’s director and CEO, Andrea Barnwell Brownlee.

When the program was scheduled, Barnwell asked to host, and Roberts didn’t hesitate to say “yes,” despite Jacksonville’s removal from the mainstream of contemporary art.

Brownlee showcased Roberts’ work in 2018 during her long tenure as head of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta. For Brownlee, who took charge of The Cummer in December 2019, this marks the third time she has relied on a pre-existing relationship with a black female artist to bring prominent, provocative, contemporary artwork to Jacksonville. The kind of art you rarely see here.

The first example was a COVID-19 spat that brought the breathtaking photos of Zanele Muholi through. Next up was a painting by Amy Sherald.

Securing “I’m” is another notable achievement for Brownlee, given Roberts’ towering profile. This presentation would not be out of its depth in any art hotspot museum in the country.

Brownlee promised “radical change” when she left Spelman for the Cummer. She pledged to transform the Cummer into a more regionally and nationally relevant institution. She assured that the museum would be more welcoming to a diverse audience.

To check. To check. To check.

“(As an artist) one of the things you hope for is that you don’t have to talk about everything; they’re familiar with the past, the culture, so when they put the show on, they understand,” Roberts told UKTN.com about the benefit black artists experience when black museum directors like Brownlee host them. “They understand what works, works best (together), culturally. This is important. If she understands my work at all, the game is won, the game is almost over, now all you have to do is figure out the logistics.’

The Florida art museum and director that made headlines this summer was the Orlando Museum of Art, disgracing Aaron DeGroft after the institution was raided by the FBI for exhibiting fake Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings. The Sunshine State museum leader who deserves the headlines is Brownlee for the big wins she continues to score for the Cummer and Jacksonville.

Incredibly, coupled with the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville’s presentation of Kara Walker through October 2, no city in the country will have two better shows of contemporary art than the self-proclaimed Bold New City of the South.

Find faces

In addition to black bodies in white spaces, “I’m” features new iterations of Roberts’ screenprinted text works in which the names of black women are underlined in red, as if marked incorrect or unrecognizable in a Microsoft Word document. New collages and paintings, some for the first time against a black background, as well as a new interactive sound, text and video sculpture demonstrate the multiplicity of her creativity.

Multiplicity is also a crucial aspect of Roberts’ collages, composing faces with different characteristics from different photos. The amalgamation makes her children unique and composite at the same time.

“I’m asking (visitors) to look beyond all these faces and find one face to connect with,” she said.

Roberts will have been successful if American society changes the way it views black children. A better way to see them would be as she sees them.

“I see potential,” said Roberts.



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