SANTA FE — Deborah Roberts: Come walk in my shoes, currently on view at SITE Santa Fe, is a small powerhouse of a show. The Austin-based artist’s first solo exhibition in New Mexico features 15 large-scale collages and paintings and one sculpture, while monumental billboards activate the museum’s exterior spaces. Roberts is well known for her representations of girlhood that focus on Black girls and subvert White, Eurocentric conventions of ideal beauty. In these works, the artist refuses the fallacy of universal beauty and makes space for women of color. In Come walk in my shoes, she turns her attention to Black boys, creating thoughtful tableaus of childhood and the robbery of innocence at the hand of the government, carceral system, and broader systemic racism in the United States.
The works in the show are suffused with care, as Roberts centers the children’s beauty and vulnerability, which is often seized from them at a young age via systemic violence in the United States. In tandem with their innocence, the artist provides clues about the sinister conditions of their lives through her layering of found images with hand-drawn and painted details. In “Armor”(2018), she depicts two young boys. One boy’s face is seen in two parts — as a youth and a man. The other young boy seems to be playing, yet his hands have been replaced with collaged photographs of adult hands, signifying the treatment of Black children as adults by a system that continually perpetuates racial profiling and criminalization.
Roberts’s sculpture “trumpet of consciousness” (2019) is an assemblage composed of a wooden box, a metal car jack, and a stack of books. The work, whose title refers to a speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, engages with the history of violence against Black boys by invoking the story of George Stinney, a 14-year-old boy who was wrongfully accused and convicted of murdering two White girls in South Carolina in 1944. Stinney was subsequently sentenced to death by electrocution after a three-day trial. Due to his small frame, the boy’s body did not fit the scale of the electric chair, forcing him to sit on a stack of books. The sculpture itself is situated in the far corner of the gallery, slightly isolated from the figural depictions of the children. The books, four copies of Black Boy by Richard Wright, are squished and seemingly exploding from their spines from the pressure of the car jack. While the two-dimensional works in the show are more nuanced and subtle in their message, “trumpet of consciousness” explicitly confronts the assumed criminality of Black children through structural racism.
The exhibition expertly creates entry opportunities for audiences of all backgrounds to witness joy, pain, and empathy. The artist unpacks histories of violence and oppression while making way for healing through her powerful work.
Deborah Roberts: Come walk in my shoes continues at SITE Santa Fe (1606 Paseo De Peralta, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through November 6. The exhibition was curated by Brandee Caoba and organized by Jakia Fuller, Max Holmes, and SITE Santa Fe.