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'Do A Little Work': Deborah Roberts' New Solo Show 'I'm' Opens At The Contemporary Austin

'The duty of disobedience,' 2020 by Deborah Roberts. Mixed media collage on canvas.
Paul Bardagjy
The Contemporary Austin
'The duty of disobedience,' 2020 Deborah Roberts

“My work has always been about beauty and race and gender,” says Austin-based artist Deborah Roberts. “And how Black women were seen in the world, in the western ideal of beauty. Where did that beauty fit [and] how did we navigate that? That’s been at the core of my work since the very beginning."

This month (and delayed since last year due to the pandemic), Roberts is set to open her first solo show at the Contemporary Austin. Consisting of all new work, including collages, paintings, and interactive sound, text, and video sculpture, the show is title I’m. “What I wanted to do in that exhibition is show what it’s like to be caught in the margins of society,” Roberts says. “And how you entered the world and how people saw you and how you were addressed by race and gender and all sorts of other things we have to deal with. And I thought that the key to the I and the m was the apostrophe. That you are more. The apostrophe gives you more of an identity and not just this confined, marginalized identity. So that’s what the work is about, and when you go in you’ll experience that, hopefully.

“What I really want people to be able to take away from this is the experience that we have experienced as Black women,” Roberts continues. “When they go into the confessional, when they see the work, when they see the black paintings, when they see works that are trying to tell you this idea that invisibility is a big part of our lives. And I want you to experience that and come out of that with some empathy for what’s happening in society today. I also want them to see the joy and the hope that’s there, the declaration that ‘I see you, I see your pain, I see who you are.’”

Roberts hopes that the audience who comes to see I’m will be willing to do a little self-examination. “It’s a little work,” she says. “You have to go into this exhibit and do a little work, a little self-examination. And not a lot of people are willing to do that, and that’s fine. I have some pretty pictures for them. But I do want people to really take the time to understand that some of the things that we talk about are very real and they’re actually happening. You know, I’m hoping they get that message. And if not, you know, I’m okay with it because I know I did the best job I can do.”

While she’s excited to have an audience come and experience I’m, Roberts is aware that the ongoing pandemic will prevent her from having the kind of opening reception she had hoped for. The exhibition will be open by appointment only, with only a few patrons allowed in at once. “I’d imagined this big opening with all of these kind of celebrity types and these art world people coming to Austin just to see my exhibit,” she says, adding with a laugh, “drinking wine, laughing, me having a panic attack in a corner.”

I’m will be up at the Contemporary for several months, though, giving Roberts some hope that she can still have that celebration at a later date. “But I think what we hope to do is have a closing, and hopefully in August more people will have been vaccinated, maybe the numbers will be down, and we can have some type of [celebration] where people can come and experience the work in person.”

In the meantime, art lovers who aren’t quite ready to venture inside the museum can still enjoy the largest work in I’m – the mural Little Man, Little Man has graced the outside wall of the building since September. Inspired by the James Baldwin children’s book of the same name, the mural features multiple images of young a Black boy, full of joy and celebratory movement. “I also wanted to talk to this idea that he is free moving along that building, but if he was walking down the street and he put that hood up over his head, he would be instantly criminalized,” Roberts says. “’What’s he up to?’ and ‘you need to watch him.’ You know, the police may pull him over and things like that. I wanted to talk about that duality of freedom versus criminalization.”

‘I’m’ will be on display at the Contemporary Austin from January 23 through August 15, and is open by appointment only.

The museum is also planning a book club in conjunction with the exhibit in February, and will host a virtual conversation with Roberts and curator Heather Pesanti on March 2.

Mike is the production director at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces and hosts This Is My Thing and Arts Eclectic, and also produces Get Involved and the Sonic ID project. When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.
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