January 27, 2022

Empathy Through Imagery: Black Children and Their Personhood. By Nadiya Jackson

Nadiya Jackson

portrait of Nadiya Jackson in front of Deborah Roberts, The Unseen, mixed-media canvas portrait
image: Nadiya Jackson standing in front of The unseen, 2020.
Photo by Rachel Grammes.

**Please be aware that this blog includes difficult language, including a racial slur, that may be triggering or harmful for some readers.**

“If we tell a Black child who they are supposed to be, they will never live up to their full potential.,” exclaimed Debroah Roberts at her artist talk with Nora Burnett Abrams, MCA Denver’s Mark G. Falcone Director, in conversation around her current exhibition, I’m, on view until January 30, 2022. A child’s joy and experiences should not be limited because it is not a monotonous experience.

Every day in the gallery, I’m greeted by a plethora of artworks that celebrate the existence of Black children. The Black figures are surrounded around negative space so as the viewer, we do not create assumptions of these children based on their environment. People who have traveled far and wide to see this exhibition, and have expressed how the artwork took over them. I have even had conversations with visitors where we opened up about the experiences of other people’s assumptions based on our identity. 

Deborah Roberts, (born in 1962 in Austin, Texas), is an Austin-based contemporary artist, who makes striking, collaged portraits of Black children that confront societal conventions around the notions of beauty, the body, race, and identity. In her current exhibition, I’m, Roberts’ large-scale mixed-media canvas committed to removing the adultification of Black boys and girls. Her collages are comprised of images of Black children, innocent and expressive in their gaze, layered with components of adult features of prolific Black public figures from the Internet, with hand-painted details in bold figural compositions, creating these larger than life canvases that bring the figures to be front and center. In every artwork, the subject’s eyes are staring directly at the viewer demanding proper acknowledgment and breaking the chains of the white gaze. 

One visitor kept returning to one of the artworks, This is Who I Am (2020). She shared with me how she has to be mindful of navigating motherhood, specifically raising a Black child in America. In exchange for her openness, I shared the story of when my father was in kindergarten, a fellow classmate called him out of his name, “nigger.” My 5-year-old father was propelled to respond with a balled fist to clash into his classmate's face. Where did this child learn to call his Black classmate such a harsh name? 

A Black child isn’t often given the chance to live in a fully extended state of innocence because of the projections from society. Black children are approached with a warning of the treatment they will encounter because of the color of their skin, all while enforcing love and building strength and confidence.  When I look at these artworks I am brought back to my childhood. I reflect on the joy and the playful moments I had with children my age, but I also remember the conversations I had to have with my parents about the expectations of navigating oppressive systems. Deborah Roberts has expanded these conversations beyond Black households. People from different backgrounds can expand their horizons beyond themselves.         

The unseen (2020), featured in Roberts exhibition, is a collaged portrait of two young Black girls adorned in various circular patterns and dynamic color values navigating the viewer's eye to the young girl on the right holding a Tootsie Pop lollipop. Their faces hold so much expression. If we stare a little longer at their faces, they are staring directly at us. The child on the left, her body language is engulfed with shyness, leaning back towards the child on the right. While the young girl on the right,  in the floral skirt, is protecting the lollipop. They have established solidarity with one another. There is a shield of protection between the viewer and the collection of images and fabrications shaping these two young girls. I’m, restructures the narrative for young Black boys and girls. It is often deemed for young Black girls to be “fast,” promiscuously seen while their bodies grow into womanhood, and young Black boys are seen as a threat among various reasons, ranging from athletic skill, or the occurring pressure of being surrounded by the fixation of repressing emotions that ultimately leads to a violent catharsis.

Roberts' artwork holds a bountiful amount of symbolism, nothing is done without intention. The Tootsie pop lollipop holds a double meaning. While the lollipop holds the significance of childhood innocence, it also brings attention to the circumstances of gun violence Black children have endured. Representing the “POP” of a gunshot. Two of her artworks were derived from the incidents of the murder of Tamir Rice and George Floyd, Cock-a-doodle-do (2019)and The duty of disobedience (2020). As Roberts' works bring light to these events in our country, she also wants to distinguish the value of Black life and the history of the commodification of Black bodies in America. Throughout her artwork, the details given to her subjects, like the hands with gold-painted fingernails, marks the significance and the worth of Black people existing. 

As a gallery attendant at MCA Denver, most of my days are spent observing the public engaging with art, and I have witnessed a unique audience interaction with Roberts’ installation, What If? (2020). This audio-visual installation encompassed in a constructed confessional booth, forces individuals to be alone with themselves and become empathetic to the reality of Black girls and women who continue to go missing in our country. One side of the booth plays a video collage by Roberts featuring a White woman saying the names displayed on the interior walls of the confessional, and a viral video of a “Karen” accompanied with the voice of James Baldwin. In the other, there is a mirror and an audio recording with intense and provocative language directed towards young Black girls confronting hypersexuality. 

I’ve seen people step out of this experience feeling jarred, angry, seen, and uncomfortable. I’ve witnessed a Black father hug his Black daughter in sympathy and support. But I’ve also seen people enter these booths without gaining any understanding of the context behind the artwork. I find the curtain and the act of closing the curtain to be one of the most powerful pieces of What If? (2020). The curtain is the erasure of a body in the gallery. When I close the curtain on behalf of the visitor, it feels like I have a responsibility to their erasure. I then see the people they come with on their visit be without their presence and sometimes unaware of how/why they disappeared? How does that equate to the realities of the subject at hand? The people who kidnapped daughters, sisters, and mothers away from their loved ones are they being held accountable? 

Deborah Roberts: I’m brings the Black narrative to the forefront through the eyes of children. The exhibition is a powerful force to experience, and people are elated to be able to witness these kinds of poignant artworks in museums around the world. Representation is imperative to move forward as a collective, and thanks to artists like Deborah Roberts, whose empathetic artistry demands space for some honest and necessary conversations in our society.