On June 22, 2018, artist Deborah Roberts joined Dayton Director Ian Berry and Mellon Collections Curator Rebecca McNamara for a conversation about her work Glass Castles (2017), which was on display in the exhibition Give a damn.
Tell us about the girl in Glass Castles. Who is she? What’s her story?
She’s a little girl who’s fighting for her independence. She’s looking fierce, and the eye looks directly at you. Her arm is cocked—she’s ready to take on whatever battles that she needs to. There are glass ceilings for her, but she can rise above everything. She’s ready to do battle in her little striped dress.
One of her arms is Willow Smith’s arm. I love the long, skinny limbs on the little girl to show that they’re not yet fully developed. I love the colors in the crown and its goldness. The girl is dark-skinned, which is very important to me, because within the black community, we have this idea of colorism, that sometimes the lighter you are, the more you get.
I want little girls, especially girls of color, to see themselves in this work and to know that they can be sassy and strong and innocent, too. This little girl is about nine years old. At that age, your independence starts to come through.
What happens to girls at that age?
I’ll use myself as an example. I think I was in the third grade, and I had two little ponytails. I was going to school and people started to get on my case because every day I had two ponytails. I remember on Sunday when I was getting my hair done, I asked my mom, “Can I have three ponytails?” I don’t know why I wanted it. She didn’t do it the first week. I asked the next week. She didn’t do it. The third week, she finally did it. I was so happy to go to school with three ponytails, until the little kids called me “Tricycle.” But I stuck with it.
I have three other sisters so I would get hand-me-downs. I used to shape my clothes differently because I was a little bit more rugged. At that age, I was asserting more of my independence. I knew I wanted to be an artist. I started drawing. I wouldn’t let anyone tell me about my work, what I was supposed to do. I think it was a time when Debbie was becoming Deborah.
At that age, you get more responsibility. Your childhood is shortened. You take on this persona that nothing can hurt you, which is untrue. I think that your silliness is seen as threatening, and sometimes when you’re loud and out of control—not physically out of control, just loud and excited—that’s stereotyped.
When you’re making these collages, are you putting yourself or your story into the work? Do you see these little girls as versions of you?
Some of it, not a lot of it. I don’t think that I deal with pain in my work enough. I want to move forward in that more. Where I see most of me in this work is with the colorism. That has zero to do with the vulnerability of blackness. It has to do with community. I’m a dark-skinned person, and we get a certain type of teasing. Why is this even an issue within the black community? Black is black.
I just noticed the other day that I’ve been putting the dark-skinned parts of my collages on the bottom and the lighter ones on the top. It’s something that I wished I didn’t do. Going forward, you’re not going to see that. Somehow I was giving a hierarchy to skin tone within my work.
When it comes to the red glove, that glove of power, that’s part of me. I was always a fighter. You have to sometimes fight for your identity, who you are. It’s about carving out your life, what direction you want to go.
Can you talk about your process in creating these collages?
Most of the faces are of little girls from Haiti. There is a uniquely wonderful, beautiful innocence that comes out of those faces that have not been touched by pop culture and have been touched by tragedy, but the innocence of a child still exists in that face, and I love it.
When I look for faces, and I come across “the one,” I know it. I take that face, and I print it out, and either I make it darker or lighter and then I take that face and take other pictures and collage those to create a new face. But that one beautiful, innocent face exists underneath, and that is what I hope people get to. From all the rest, they get to that innocent face, because that’s humanity.
Once I get the face, the body comes relatively easily. In the work I talk about black culture, pop culture, American history, and art history. I look at black culture, the colorism that’s in the work; there’s the texture of the clothes, which has to do with pop culture, and the yellows against the dark skin. There’s a notion that there are no black princesses in America. So she has the crown on her head. All those things are merged together into that work.
We need more black princesses!
Oh, god, yes. I’m the queen! We need more princesses. When you see sisters, they say, “I’m a queen.” You know? We take on that role. I’m fascinated with Queen Elizabeth II. I think she is a strong woman. She came in at twenty-five years old and took over that country, and now she’s going to die in that role as queen. She’s not going to relinquish the crown, and I love that.
Every little girl is a princess. But when I attach rap music to that idea … You have people who say their mothers are queens, their daughters are princesses, and then they go into a recording booth and call every other woman bitches, hoes, and skanks. Well, what’s the difference? How can your mother and your daughter be a queen and a princess, but every other woman that you talk about in your music is something degrading? So that’s why if you say she’s a princess, all of us are princesses.
What made you want to engage with politically driven topics in your work?
Because that’s my life. I see a lot of injustices. And how could I talk about them? I started reading The Cornel West Reader (1999), and he talked about black bodies in a way I’ve never heard about. I never heard before how political they were. I said, “This is the direction for my work.”
When I look at a person like Philando Castile, who had done everything that they tell you to do … He drives by in a car, and a police officer sees that he has a wide nose like some criminal they’re looking for. One of his taillights is out. So he stops him based on that. Castile says everything right as far as having a gun, a permit. He has his partner and baby in the car, and he gets shot to death. No one comes to his defense, not the NRA, even though they promote owning guns.
That type of anger builds in you. How do I get it out? I’m asking people to see my humanity first. See me as a person first. My work helps me get through this stuff of being reduced to criminality because we are clothed in dark skin.
Dialogue is very important. Once we start talking to each other, we realize we have more things in common than not in common. When we start trying to divide people into categories, that’s when we get into trouble. There’s no profit in us getting along. There’s more profit if we’re divided. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true.
Thinking about the eight-to-ten-year-old girls in your work … Is that the age when you first learned about racism and the injustices of the world?
I learned at twelve, and it was rough. We were bussed from an East Austin school to the West Austin school, and the teachers were horrible to us. We went from people who loved us, who knew our families, who cared about whether or not we acted right, to people who didn’t know us, didn’t care about our existence, who said that we ruined their whole lives, and that’s when I found out about racism. I didn’t know about it before that because everyone in my neighborhood looked like me.
Do you still think about that time?
Oh, my god, all the time. The second day of school in West Austin, the teacher said, “I hate that you’re at this school. I don’t know why they brought you guys over here,” and blah, blah, blah. I haven’t been able to incorporate this in my work, but she had notecards with all the students’ information on it. She told me why I couldn’t sit by any of those kids. One right after the other. She put me and another girl in this little minority section of the classroom by the bathrooms, and that’s where we stayed the whole year. We never got to sit with the other kids, like we did something wrong. Luckily, it was only a year.
Did you have the language then to talk about that trauma when you went home to your family?
No, I didn’t. One thing about being bussed, if you missed a bus, you didn’t go to school. So I would hide behind the 7-Eleven stores and let the bus go by, and then I would come home and say, “I missed the bus.” My mother was going to work. She couldn’t take me. So I would stay at home. I missed a lot of school that year.
The teacher talked about black bodies. There’s one story in particular—I’m just realizing it, but I guess this is why I talk about bodies in my work. We started talking about sex ed. She asked me to leave the classroom. So she told me to go to the library, and any time away from this teacher I was happy. So I went to the library, and I was reading some book.
I remember the other girl coming and getting me, and she said, “She’s been talking about your body, and she wants the kids to look at how well developed black people are.” She said that we’re really sexual and that I probably have had sex already. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” So I had to walk in the classroom with all the kids looking at me. I think that has something to do with the work that I’m doing, especially when I talk about the body and how it’s overly sexualized.