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Deborah Roberts wants us to see black people—black girls and women specifically. For Roberts, this seeing begins in the face—what many deem the reservoir of recognition.1 But when recognition escapes the black woman (whether cis, queer, or trans) time and again, we must pause, and realize it isn’t enough to simply look upon their visage to recuperate the trodden history of patriarchal whiteness. Instead, Roberts wants us to see differently or, in her words, to “see [black] people not as parts or as a single person…[but] as a whole human being.”2 This charge is a complicated one: what is it that distinguishes a single person from a whole human being?
The collages and text-based work on view at Deborah Roberts at Luis De Jesus didn’t make this ontological paradox any easier. Across the two-room, white-walled gallery, Roberts opted not to answer the question but to instead lay out a palimpsest of sorts, adopting surrealist strategies of assemblage, gender subversion, and political critique to (in)form her black feminine faces and androgynous bodies.3 The latter was actualized through appendages that pop out, with certain limbs referencing historic moments that are as uplifting as they are upsetting. Take Political Lamb #3 (2018), a figurative collage of loose body parts assembled against a stark white background. Looking upon the work drew one not to the face, but to the two pairs of hands on this girl (a fifth hand hangs on the side). The more central set of hands were taken from a photograph of activist Rosa Parks; she held a slate with her arrest number, 7053. Glancing upwards on the figure, we were not met by Parks’ enduring eyes (these hands date to Parks’ second arrest on February 21, 1956) or her face for that matter. Instead, we encountered an alien face—a fragmented mien comprised of three unknown girls and/or women. Two of these partial faces appeared side-by-side. Both were missing an eye, but their juxtaposition produced a somewhat seamless face with two eyes. Things got a tad bizarre as a doubleness unfolded across this fragmented face: two noses; two lips; two chins. One face actually offered up a profile view, her eyes staring off to the side, shirking any semblance of a shared gaze. Rounding things out was a third girl’s effaced face that sat atop these two other partial visages; she became the crown of this fragmented head, with the only visible features being her left ear, braids, and bow barrettes.
Due to this alienable aesthetic, Political Lamb #3 became a mien of multitudes, her fractured face beholden to everyone and no one, her identity both known and unknown. While Parks’ hands felt familiar and, sadly, familial—a generational hold-over of police violence—how do we also come to know the countless black girls today that are being increasingly criminalized, detained, and incarcerated?4 It’s a tall order to know such girls since our seeing remains governed by a visual calculus habituated less towards recognition than the impersonal and indifferent.5 Moreover, if we consider the form to the face of Political Lamb #3 alongside Roberts’ call for humanism, it’s worth asking: can this collaged adult-child approach a (collective) individualism within a fragmented aesthetic of competing guises? In short, can the piecemeal help apprehend the whole human?
This face of multitudes—cobbled together through found photographs, painting, drawing, and text—was mirrored in Roberts’ other figures, all of whom were girls. Golden Smile (2018) also sported braids, pigmented gold barrettes, and three different faces, each of varying skin tones. This patchwork physiognomy was offset with sleek, sturdy legs of a musculature at odds with the apparent age of the figure. Roberts’ girls typically span ages eight to 10. Yet their extremities are larger-than life, often disproportionate with their lissome bodies. Such bodily schisms appeared in Human nature (2018) where the girl bore three hands, one appearing willowy and aged. Things got more penetrating in Here before, here after (2018): a figure with furrowed hands (belonging to Roberts’ grandmother) that rest over a floral patterned blouse. The hands—held in a pensive embrace—exuded a wisdom that signaled possibility for the youthful, wide-eyed, and splintered face.
Do these assemblage faces demand humanity? That is Roberts’ provocation, really. Writing on the ethical imperatives of the face, philosopher Judith Butler considered the face as “that for which no words really work.”6 Indeed, these girls never speak, and thus their faces are left to negotiate these ethics in silence. Yet, despite their inability to communicate, as cut-up configurations, these faces articulated that black girls are irreducible to a single person. As such, there is a spectrum to black girlhood, one that we come to see by virtue of how Roberts’ rendered these fractured faces with other women’s bodies—e.g., Rihanna’s eyes. For Roberts, this depth to looking—seeing the parts and the human—insists that sameness and difference can indeed coexist under the umbrella category of “human.”
Opposite Human nature and Golden Smile hung the triptych Sovereignty (2016), a hand-drawn set of three serigraphs of black women’s names that Roberts sourced from friends. The far right in the triptych was a dense list of 213 names, from Khepri to Sharnell. All, however, were underlined with that all-too-familiar squiggly red line—these names were ostensibly misspelled, unrecognizable to word processing programs. The drawing on the left side of the triptych contrasted the list by featuring a sole name— Sharkesha—in large serif font. This work followed a similar logic to the collages: the viewer’s gaze moved from the minute to the masses and back again. However, the simplicity of this solution—names, listed— can’t be ignored. Sovereignty suggested a way to begin to humanize the silent figures that Roberts depicts, or at least to begin to find words that do the work.
So we were made to work—our eyes flitting back and forth, pausing now and again—all in an attempt to make sense of a dismembered black girlhood. What would Roberts have viewers see by way of this methodology of mutilation? Each fractured facial feature approached the informe—or formlessness—of surrealism that avoided meaning so as to impose “a job: to undo formal categories.”7 Roberts wants her black girls to sidestep the rigidity of formality—societal pressures concerning beauty, decorum—that prematurely shapes them into data rather than humans with vagaries.
Originally published in Carla Issue 13