Deborah Roberts is a visual artist living and working in Austin, Texas. Roberts’ work focuses directly on societal standards of beauty and the construction of race and gender identity. She has shown her work nationally and internationally and is represented in the collections of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies. Her exhibition Nobody’s Darling: Women and Representation is on view at the Warfield Center’s Christian-Green Gallery through Aug. 11, 2017.
Rebecca Marino: The title of your exhibition at The Warfield Center, Nobody’s Darling, is taken from an Alice Walker poem. The excerpt below really resonated with me with your work alongside it:
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl
Is that how you’re dressing or creating these girls you’re collaging, wrapping them in contradictions?
Deborah Roberts: Yes. I want them to be loved, protected, and cherished, but I also want them to challenge beauty and privilege head-on, even though they carry a certain type of privilege. I need the collages to break ties as well as heal them; to be both powerful and vulnerable, fragile and fashionable, narrative and non-realistic, but most importantly I want them to challenge the notion that beauty is simply black and white, or only this and not that, and to challenge the notion that we should dehumanize others to feel superior.
RM: There is a lot to work with but also so much to juggle when it comes to issues of representation of gender and race. Does this become overwhelming for you?
DR: Yes. I try to show my girls in a positive light, but when I saw an image of a little girl being handcuffed and thrown to the ground like a rag doll by police officers, I knew that “who” those officers saw wasn’t what I see when I look at sassy young Black girls. Losing one’s humanity is a crushing blow, so it’s important for me to express that pain and ugliness in my work, too.
RM: Do you have a good story about yourself as a young girl dealing with ideals of beauty or media/celebrity influence?
DR: When I was a kid I loved to have two ponytails until a bunch of girls told me my hairstyle was lame, so I asked my mother to change it to three ponytails. When I went to school the next week, they started to call me Tricycle because I had three instead of two. I talk a lot about having natural hair in my work and that it is important to be who you are naturally. I had to learn that our hair grows up and it’s beautiful.
RM: You are one of the rare true Austinites; how does it feel to be tackling issues concerning race in a city like Austin?
DR: It’s very hard. Austin has a large white population, and I sometimes feel like many issues that affect Black life aren’t taken seriously. There is a real need for diversity.
RM: You have had a really fantastic and successful year as an artist over the last 25 years. As someone who has been at it for so long, how do you feel about this period of your career?
DR: It’s been a rollercoaster. If you start from the day Volta Art Fair opened, it was just instant shock after shock–things were happening way too fast! You work your entire art life for this type of success/acceptance and because it comes so fast, you don’t believe it. I find myself in a place of soul-searching and keeping my eyes on the prize, which means I’m taking things slowly and working really hard to stay focused and keep the level of my work up.
RM: Is there anything you can attribute this success to?
DR: A lot of hard work, and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant was a tremendous boost for me. It gave me the time/space to really work.
RM: Is there advice you would offer your younger self or another younger artist?
DR: Don’t let anyone rob or shame you because you believe in something you can’t really see.
RM: What’s next for you?
I really don’t work for shows; I just work. After eight weeks I take a look at it, write about it, sometimes I invite curators and other artists over to talk about it, and after that I decide which of the works gets my message out and informs my audience best. Then I start again.
Rebecca Marino is co-editor of Conflict of Interest and works as a visual artist and curator in Austin, TX.