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The Breakthrough Women of Artist Deborah Roberts

February 9, 2018
Amy Larocca

The artist Deborah Roberts creates multimedia collages concerned with the challenges faced by black women and girls. “I think all girls, but in particular black girls, start to question their own ideas of beauty when they’re around 8 or 9,” Roberts says. “Black society is a matriarchal society. We assert our independence much earlier because we have to. These girls are powerful and vulnerable at the same time.”

Roberts’s work combines found and manipulated images merged with hand-drawn and painted details. “My ideals of race and beauty were shaped by and linked through Renaissance art and photographs in fashion magazines. Those images were mythical, heroic, beautiful, and powerful and embodied a particular status that was not afforded equally to anyone I knew.”

For this project, Roberts, who frequently creates images of young girls, used more adults than she usually does — Rihanna’s eyes, Michelle Obama’s arms, and Issa Rae’s hands, among others. She calls these subjects her “breakthrough women” and imagines them as the future of the girls she typically depicts. “These women, they broke through!” she says. “They told Misty Copeland she was too short, too old. She broke through! Rosa Parks sat down and didn’t get up. She broke through!”

We also asked Roberts to work with clothes from the spring collections — while she’s a fan of texture and pattern and color, the fashion world was new to her. “I’m not necessarily a big fashion person,” Roberts says, “but I know that the way young black people wear clothes has always influenced the trends. But me? I’m a pen-and-pencil girl. This is my way of mark-making.”

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