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Close Look: Deborah Roberts

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

In another insightful essay for our ongoing series 'Close Look,' University of Texas art history PhD candidate, Nicole Smythe-Johnson, takes us into Susanna and Richard Finnell's art collection for a close look at Deborah Roberts's text-based work. Roberts is widely-known for her collages of Black children which force viewers to confront the layered complexities of racial inequity. However, here Smythe-Johnson sheds light on the ways in which the artist uses words to further conversations about systemic racism.


The works of art featured in Close Look are found in some of our favorite private-collections—providing a rare opportunity to peak at some of the collectors who inspire us, while taking a closer look…

I Ain't No Woman, Deborah Roberts, 2016. © Deborah Roberts. Image courtesy of private collection.


A Rose by Any Other Name: Deborah Roberts’ text works

By Nicole Smythe-Johnson

With this ‘Close Look,’ we move closer to home with works by Deborah Roberts (b. 1962). Born and raised in Austin, Roberts has been a practicing artist for as long as she can remember. In a 2019 interview with Austin Art Talk’s Scott David Gordon, Roberts discusses the impact that mandatory busing had on her childhood drawing practice, revealing that Austin, and particularly Black Austin, is woven into the very foundation of her creative life. Roberts studied art at the University of North Texas, which she says she “did not like,” before beginning a promising career as a painter, producing work that she describes as realist and romantic, a “Black Norman Rockwell.” Though she enjoyed the support of collectors and galleries, Roberts began to feel a pull towards greater abstraction in the mid noughties, and though it meant alienating her early supporters, she took the leap into collage that would lead to the works she’s best known for now. Today, an MFA from Syracuse University, a Pollock-Krasner grant, Rauschenburg residency, and a tidal wave of critical attention and major exhibitions later, not to mention acquisitions by major museums and the likes of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Roberts is preparing for her first major solo show in her hometown. The Contemporary Austin will open the highly anticipated I’m in February 2021.


In the last few years, as Roberts’ star has risen, there has been a great deal of coverage of her work. Her collages of Black children, primarily girls, are a combination of painted elements and found images from magazines and other popular culture, floating against stark white backgrounds. They are striking reflections on Black innocence and the ways that society writes meaning on to Black bodies before the people occupying those bodies have had a chance to define themselves. For this piece I wanted to return my first encounter with Roberts’ work, however, which was belated by any standard and facilitated by a far less popular set of works by the artist. When I encountered Richard and Susanna Finnell’s nine text works by Roberts in their Austin living room in the Spring of 2018, the artist had already sold over 40 works in 4 days at the Volta fair in New York. Her 2018 solo show at Stephen Friedman Gallery in London was already in the works, but Roberts’ work was new to me. Though the Finnells also own some small, early collage works, it was the text works that held me.

Installation shot of Deborah Roberts's text work in the Finnell Collection. Image courtesy of collection.


They were sparse; text in black, red, yellow and white on white backgrounds. Sometimes the serif font, reminiscent of newspapers, jumped out in large black or red letters on white, but in others the text was tiny, forming black lines on a white background recalling Frank Stella’s black paintings. In another, white text almost disappears on the white paper, appearing more as texture than legible shapes. Though the pieces are separate works hung together by the Finnells, they share a theme, the kinds of names associated with African-American girls and women. Names that end in “shia”, “ique”, “isha”, “iqua”, and begin with “La”, as one work helpfully lists. Names like Latrella, Moniqua, Delinda, and Tawonda, all of which are among lines and lines of names overlaying a black letter “a” in another work. The large “a” is both the indefinite article, as in “a Black girl, any Black girl,” and a shape. If you look long enough, it loses its integrity as a readable thing, it begins to look strange, like when you say a word over and over until it devolves into a senseless sound.


In some works, such as I Ain't No Woman, which features 'Barackisha Meechala Obamisha,' the words layer and separate, as sometimes happens in bad offset printing. Something is off in this recasting of Barack and Michelle Obama’s names. At once we become aware of the class distinctions between the Ivy league educated Obamas and the image we associate with names like “Denisha” or “Taloria.” In one of few articles that discuss Roberts’ text work, Glasstire’s Rainey Knudson points out that Roberts’ given name, Deborah, is not among the “black-sounding names” in these works. [1] In fact, the diminutive of Roberts’ name, Debbie, is a lot more like Becky and Karen, names that have come to represent generic white femininity. This adds another layer to these works. It’s not every Black girl who is associated with names beginning with “La” and ending with “iqua.” It’s a specifically urban stereotype that overwrites the identity politics of African American naming practices.[2] For Roberts, who has described her upbringing in historically Black East Austin, as like “growing up in Black Americana,”[3] the welfare queen trope, first popularized by Ronald Reagan in his 1976 campaign, was a far cry. At the same time, the controversies over Barack Obama’s American-ness—the infamous hunt for his birth certificate and one supporter of Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s assertion that Obama was an “Arab”[4]—remind us that these issues also traverse class lines. In the United States of America there is a great deal in a name.


At once we become aware of the class distinctions between the Ivy league educated Obamas and the image we associate with names like “Denisha” or “Taloria.”

(Detail) Pluralism #7, Deborah Roberts, 2016. © Deborah Roberts. Image courtesy of private collection.


Though these works exploring the gendering and racializing of names are formally different from Roberts’ more celebrated collages, they are very much in keeping with Roberts’ longstanding interests. Roberts has said of her practice, “The thesis of the work is the little girl who’s between the ages of 8 and 10 years old who’s just come on her idea of beauty. The question I pose to people is how has her beauty been imagined by art history and pop culture, by American history and Black culture.”[5] In these works, those considerations shift from the faces and bodies of Black girls, to their names. If in the collages we are asked to see these Black children’s innocence, vulnerability and beauty, in spite of the ways their bodies have been fetishized and offered for consumption (as violent gangsters or sexually available vixens), in these works we see how even the names of Black girls have been sexualized, and how Black parenting has been pathologized. In one work we find the familiar list of “Black girl names,” but this time annotated with notes in the margins like “whoever has this name will end up riding a pole,” “whoever named her child that name needs therapy,” and “sounds like a sex act.”


In these works, those considerations shift from the faces and bodies of Black girls, to their names. If in the collages we are asked to see these Black children’s innocence, vulnerability and beauty, in spite of the ways their bodies have been fetishized and offered for consumption (as violent gangsters or sexually available vixens), in these works we see how even the names of Black girls have been sexualized, and how Black parenting has been pathologized.

We are left wondering, would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Is Becky more innocent and beautiful, more worthy of protection than Ja’Tovia? We can, of course, add a further layer of complication. After all, names such as Debbie, Becky or Karen also carry with them a corresponding set of gendered caricatures. Of course, no one is going to think twice about hiring Becky. Economics professor Ronald Fryer’s research, however, indicates that Ja’Tovia may not be so lucky. Either way, these are complex questions. Work like Roberts’ invites you to delve in, take it on, quietly and to yourself, because though these works are more a whisper than a shout, they, like the rest of Roberts’ output, are no shrinking violets.

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[1] Rainey Knudson. “Naming and Shaming: Deborah Roberts at Art Palace,” Glasstire, 21 November 2016. Online.

[2] See Ronald Fryer and Steven Levitt’s “The Causes and Consequences of Distinctively Black Names” in Quarterly Journal of Economics 119, August 2004, pp 767-805.

[3] Ann Boyd, “Deborah Roberts: Austin artist counts Jay-Z and Beyoncé among her collectors,” Soulciti, 10 October 2018. Online.

[4] See Anthony Zurcher, “The birth of the Obama ‘birther’ conspiracy,” BBC News, 16 September 2016. Online.

[5] Interview with Scott David Gordon, Austin Art Talk, Episode 19, 10 March 2018. Online.