Societal beauty standards, racism, gun violence, and stereotypes are just a few of the topics commented on in Deborah Roberts’s “I’m” exhibit. After hard work and determination to tell the stories of those not listened to, Robert’s work has been displayed and exhibited across the U.S. and Europe. And now until Dec. 4, “I’m” exhibit can be found at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens.
The large collages, mostly of Black boys and girls, on white backgrounds hung on white walls of the private space make it hard to feel like you are alone while viewing Roberts’ work. While some figures take up more room than others, their prominence highlights the title of the exhibit: a reclamation of one’s own identity and how they are viewed within society.
“This exhibition is special for a number of reasons,” Cummer Director and CEO Andrea Barnwell Brownlee said. “‘I’m’ is one of those really reflective terms that allows people to really think about themselves in an introspective sort of way and perhaps even put themselves in others’ shoes.”
The most distinctive feature of Robert’s work is her use of mixed media and collages. Photographs and cut-outs of older faces cover eyes and other facial features of the younger painted subjects. The dichotomy of the older features on young ones emphasizes the harsh reality of young Black children subjected to having to grow prematurely due to racism and stereotypes.
“When you invite people into your work and invite them to spend time to think about the perspectives of others, it’s a really powerful gesture,” Brownlee said. “So in those words, as well as the figures, Deborah Roberts really does connect us to a whole lineage of feminist thoughts, American thoughts, of this idea that the singular person, as an individual, does matter.”
“I’m” also showcases some of Roberts’ newer works and techniques, including text-based pieces, some of which present the names of Black women underlined in red as if they were misspelled on a Word document. On the left wall of the exhibit, “When They Look Back (1, 2, and 3” depicts three Black girls on black backgrounds, leaving only the faces and gold nail polish noticeable. As written on the exhibit label, the shift from the usual white backgrounds is meant to comment on the “absence of Black girls” in a dark society. As well as convey the lack of African-American subjects and people within entertainment and art.
On the opposite wall near the tall windows overlooking the Cummer Gardens is an even newer installment to the exhibit: an interactive art piece that asks visitors to step inside a curtained booth. On one side of the excluded area is a video portraying what may be a look into Robert’s collaging process while a narrator memorializes the names of four hundred Black women who have gone missing. While on the other side, one faces a mirror to see themselves engulfed in all those woman’s names fixed on the walls.
Overall, Robert’s pieces beg viewers to look further than what is portrayed on the canvases. To have a conversation with the artworks and yourself to find and understand the hidden meaning within distinct symbols. With the Cummer being the only location on the East Coast to feature “Deborah Roberts: I’m” exhibit as well it being the museum’s 60th anniversary, Brownlee expresses the museum’s sense of responsibility to ensure they show the most compelling and dynamic work in honor of Ninah Cummer.
“Now, honestly, more than ever we are focused on Ninah Cummer’s goal,” Brownlee said. “She really, 60 years ago, decided she wanted an institution that was for all of Jacksonville, and we take very seriously our responsibility to keep presenting a variety of projects that are going to fulfill her vision.”
In order to get the full experience of the “I’m” exhibit it’s important to not only take a look at that collection but also the other collections within the museum. They are placed purposefully to create a larger context and tell a deeper story.