Deborah Roberts' unique take on blackness featured in new book

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Deborah Roberts' unique take on blackness featured in new book
A spread in “Deborah Roberts: The Evolution of Mimi”.

ATHENS, GA.- Artists often use their medium to express identity — both how society views others and how we view ourselves. Texas-based artist Deborah Roberts has run with this idea and made it her own. Her first book, “Deborah Roberts: The Evolution of Mimi,” was just published by Spelman College Museum of Fine Art and the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia, which collaborated on the project following an exhibition of the same name at Spelman.

Authors Erin J. Gilbert, Kirsten Pai Buick and Antwaun Sargent each wrote an essay for the book from an academic perspective, examining Roberts’ use of serigraphs and collage, her focus on childhood and her text-based works. Valerie Cassel Oliver provided an interview with Roberts in which the two women discuss Roberts’ career and life. Franklin Sirmans and Beverly Guy-Sheftall provided a postscript and a coda to the text, and Mary Schmidt Campbell, president of Spelman, wrote a foreword, and Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art and editor of the book, wrote about the genesis of the exhibition and how Roberts’ career has changed and evolved since then.

Roberts’ inventive artwork depicts men and women of color largely through collage, mixing skin tones of every shade. Each work celebrates a group of people society often overlooks. Since she graduated with a fine arts degree in 1985, she has been using black subjects as centerpieces for her work. Early on, Roberts explored themes that are often seen as essential to black families and communities, such as church, family prayer, women on the porch in their neighborhood and children playing. She also focused on self-empowerment and acceptance, racial unity and uplift. Roberts put the black subjects of her work in a positive light, wanting to depict them as heroes and inspiring protagonists.

Upon first glance, the collages Roberts crafts can be disorienting, but the meaning behind them is worth a deeper look. Their fragmented look symbolizes the hardships and disenfranchisement of black women even as they bring out what makes black women powerful. Roberts sparks a dialogue and a self-awareness within the self, especially for women of color who may view their identity as fragmented by a society that defines them.

One notable work included in this book is a mixed-media piece on canvas entitled “PROTEST!” It shows a young girl with the word “protest” written over and over again superimposed on her hair, capturing the social commentary surrounding young black girls’ hairstyles. A hand-painted serigraph by Roberts shows the letters “LA-A,” calling out those who make fun of the uniqueness of African American names. The book also includes work by other artists to contextualize Roberts’ work, such as Glenn Ligon.

“Deborah Roberts: The Evolution of Mimi” contains 160 pages and features 80-plus full-page and full-color illustrations of Roberts’ work. These illustrations include past and more recent collages and text-based images. This book retails for $40, and can be ordered through the Georgia Museum of Art’s online shop at as well as on

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