East Austin’s Deborah Roberts Comes Home with Her First Solo Texas Exhibition

Deborah Roberts, Little man, little man, 2020. Collage printed on weather-resistant vinyl.

Deborah Roberts got her start as an artist painting scenes from her life “in our own little bubble in East Austin.” Now, she is an internationally renowned artist who counts Beyoncé and Jay-Z among her fans — and she’s coming back to Austin this January with her first solo exhibition in a Texas museum.

Austin native Deborah Roberts

Deborah Roberts: I’m will be featured at The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center on Congress Ave beginning January 2021. Consistent with Roberts’ style, I’m is a mixed media series that examines societal pressures, projected images of beauty or masculinity, and the violence of American racism through the eyes of the most vulnerable population in America: Black children. 

I’ve always advocated this notion that people didn’t really see black people – who we really are

“I’ve always advocated this notion that people didn’t really see black people – who we really are,” Roberts said in a 2018 interview for SoulCiti. Her hope, she intimated in an interview for her exhibition at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, is for audiences to see the vulnerability, strength, beauty and humanity of Black people through her portrayals. 

“If you can find yourself in (these faces), then you can see and embrace your own humanity. Once you see me as human, then we can coexist equally. That’s the basis of the work,” she said at the time.

I’m will appear at the Jones Center as part of the museum’s participation in the Feminist Art Coalition, which seeks to generate cultural awareness of feminist thought, experience and action while making a public commitment to social justice and structural change. Originally scheduled to open September 2020, the exhibition was postponed, allowing Roberts time to incorporate themes inspired by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Javier Ambler and countless others at the hands of police, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the continuing impact of racism on Black Americans into her work. 

In a Coffee Chat hosted by Big Medium this July, Roberts told fellow artist Betelhem Makonnen, “It’s really hard to use (a child’s) body in relationship to violence and people displacing them and seeing them as invisible. So I really had to think about how I was going to do that —- what was the best way to talk about looting and rioting and racial protesting and being Black and being seen but not seen using children?” 

She said she hopes her first solo hometown exhibition helps people to unpack the importance of the times we’re currently living in, and to see the humanity of Black people in this country. “Why when Black people peacefully protest and some people start to loot and riot because of the anger and the frustration that has been building and building and it explodes that they’re seen as animals and creatures? Why are they not seen as people who are frustrated, because they’re tired of hitting their head up against the wall and getting nothing out of it, turning the other cheek over and over,” she asked. 

I’m will be on exhibit at the Jones Center downtown January 23 – August 15, 2021. Austinites can see her accompanying mural, Little man, little man, named for James Baldwin’s 1976 children’s book, now flanking the outside of the Jones Center. Her work is also on display locally at the Blanton Museum on the UT Campus.


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