DrIbora Roberts seems to have exploded onto the art scene only recently with her poignant paintings of black lives, but the 60-year-old African American has been hard at work as an artist for three decades. Until a few years ago, she supplemented her income from working in a shoe store. “I can show you six ways to tie laces,” she says. Now her work requires tens of thousands of dollars and she counts museums, art galleries, and art buyers like Beyoncé among her collectors.
As in previous exhibitions, I have something to tell you, her most recent show at the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London, focuses on black children, their early sexual transformation and criminalization. Given the seriousness of her art, it is surprising to meet a smiling Roberts (behind her Covid mask) while 12 new works of hers are installed. Despite waiting decades for a financial reward, the graceful artist gives the impression that he is being built for success.
Many of the large paintings are mixed media images of black bodies, boys and girls. The centerpiece, The Body Remembers, is an intense response to the clothing search by the Metropolitan Police childthe 15-year-old at an East London school who was falsely accused of possession of marijuana.
I asked Roberts about her journey from full-time painter to respected collage. She says Norman Rockwell’s delicate photographs of everyday life in the United States were an early inspiration. “I knew he was drawing about the experiences I had as a kid, but I didn’t see people of color in them.” Aside from the famous civil rights billboard, the problem we all live withAnd the “There have only been one or two children with African American children,” she says. She decided to paint her own version of everyday life: “I wanted everyone to have the kind of childhood that Norman Rockwell envisioned.”
As a painter, she had a steady number of commercial clients, but by the early 2000s there was a change in her work. A magazine commissioned released a jazz piece, she says, “But when I started painting, the body broke, the pictures, the lights, everything. The end result wasn’t this sexy singer on stage—the body no longer looked human.”
Since then, Roberts has begun experimenting, coloring her palettes with paint and collage. “My first collage was an accident. I was cutting faces to get them out and they fell on each other and thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s it!’ It allowed me to talk about blackness in a way that hadn’t been talked about before.”
Her mission to humanize black girls in art culminated when she heard about Child Keough. “This story pissed me off,” says Roberts. “This experience will change her life. We try so hard to fight for our beauty.” She shakes her head. “To take a child and strip her of her dignity and humanity. It affected me because generational trauma is passed down to black people. That trauma is in her now. That’s why the piece is called The Body Remembers.”
The work, inspired by the Child Q case, shows a faceless young girl, with a group of faceless faces, who has not yet been stripped naked, but bends down as if about to be internally examined. “It’s the worst thing that can happen to you besides rape,” she says. “For me, based on our history of enslavement, it was a way to break it, the way slaves were broken down by the maintainers. That’s why I put so many anonymous faces to work, because the trauma I’ve been through is nothing new.”
Roberts sees work as a tool toward enlightenment: “The girl wears red pants because she’s menstruating. I put cherries on her blouse to reflect lost innocence. The stripes on her sleeves suggest a prison uniform, because blacks carry this misconception of criminality wherever we go.” Roberts ponders the array of faces: “There’s a profile looking down from humiliation and shame. Another face you’re looking at right in, like — How can you do this to me? The police treated Baby Q as if they were subhumans. They didn’t see themselves or their daughters in it. “.
This concept of black invisibility runs throughout the gallery, where black children are depicted with their bodies twisted almost like ghosts on black canvases. “It’s the idea of being absent and present at the same time,” Roberts says. “I put chalk around the bodies, like when someone gets killed. I make my face really clear but I blur the rest of the body, like they’re just disappearing before our eyes and no one cares.”
Roberts says black absence is also a component of Western art history. Her landmark work U Picasso speaks of her association with Picasso’s African period and art which she believes “arrogantly seized”. “In U Picasso,” says Roberts, “this black child is lying with his hands cuffed behind his back saying, ‘Picasso, you made me meaningless, on purpose. “The broken face of my portrait in dialogue with the broken faces of Picasso’s Cubism. This is how whites see us – as broken. They do not see the whole person.”
When my eyes meet the humiliating but defiant agent of Child Q, I confess to Roberts that it leaves me feeling like a voyeur or complicit – it’s paradoxical. Roberts shakes his head and sighs: “I think the duality goes back to my childhood, to the downward gaze of a teacher who would usually hold my face. Today I still don’t look people’s faces directly. When you lower your eyes, they tend to give them more power over you.”
As the father of black children, I say, this echoes through my mind. “True, we have a common history. As James Baldwin once said, “If they take you in the morning, they will come to us that night.” The world tells you that you are ugly. It makes you despise yourself. I try to show the beauty and the glow that is in black children, to lift the veil from their lives “.