Magic, Joy and Celebration: New Art Examines the Eminence of Blackness

Magic, Joy and Celebration: New Art Examines the Eminence of Blackness

Three artists explore expanded views of Black culture and imagination.


“I ’m rootin’ for everybody Black!” proclaimed actress and multi-media mogul Issa Rae at the 2017 Emmys, clad in a sumptuous red asymmetrical gown, in a now-viral moment. Rae’s sincere and heartfelt statement has since floated through the interwebs and continues to be proudly used by Black folx online. This exaltation of Blackness, one so essential and critical, translates into the work of intergenerational artists and creatives Deborah Roberts, Haleigh Nickerson and Kamra.

Roberts celebrates the sacredness of Black children – their glee and their wisdom – through the lens of mixed media collage, portraying them with playful body language and fanciful clothing. Haleigh Nickerson, meanwhile, visualizes Black womxn as womxn warriors who unlock self-contained powers to simply exist in the world, seen in her fantastical photography and wonderfully womanist installations. Kamra fuses ideas of care, softness, green spaces and futurist thought to propel Black and POC queer and trans artists to new artistic heights.

In each of their collective practices and approaches, Roberts, Nickerson and Kamra narrate the multiplicity and eminence of Blackness. I spoke with each artist last month over email, and during our conversations, Roberts, Nickerson and Kamra let us into their worlds, and expressed thoughts, intentions and truths.

Deborah Roberts

Deborah Roberts at the Rauschenberg Residency in Captiva, Florida, 2019. Photo: Mark Poucher. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London © DEBORAH ROBERTS

F or Austin native Deborah Roberts, whose current Texas debut museum exhibit, Deborah Roberts: I’m, on view at the Contemporary Austin through 15 August, doesn’t feel like a coming home moment. “No, not really,” says the mixed-media artist, “I think of it as an ‘I’ve always been here’ working moment.” Roberts’s substantial art practice provides a sacred space for Black children in the most powerful and unapologetic of ways. The Syracuse University MFA alum, whose collage pieces center the joy and physical beauty of young Black girls – and now Black boys – are urgent, necessary and exuberant representations of Black children. They are especially poignant, given the historic and rampant criminalization and killing of Black boys as young as pre-teens in the U.S. The artist shares: “There is a real need to protect children of color because they are just as, if not more vulnerable than their peers of encountering some type of physical or emotional trauma with law enforcement.”

Deborah Roberts’s Let’s not give up, 2020. Photo: Paul Bardagjy; 80 days (Nessun dorma series), 2018; Red, white and blue, 2018. Courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, and Vielmetter Los Angeles. © Deborah Roberts.
Deborah Roberts, What else can I do, 2020. Courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, and Vielmetter Los Angeles. © Deborah Roberts.

Black Girl Magic has always echoed loudly in Roberts’s mixed media collage pieces, where the artist sources found images from the internet, books and image archives. Known for creating elegantly fragmented figures of young Black girls with brown skin and coarse hair dressed in whimsical, stylish outfits, Roberts repeatedly reinforces Black beauty, despite the Eurocentric beauty ideals and tropes mainstream media forces upon us. “Black skin is so beautiful and certain colors glow next to it,” says Roberts, “I want to highlight that by providing an assortment of colors that extends a warm welcome while, at the same time, giving a nod to the fresh, upbeat nature of children.”

In Deborah Roberts: I’m, the artist’s first solo show in Texas, the powerhouse artist continues investigating ideas of beauty, race, happiness and safety through depictions of Black children. Originally meant to open September 2020, the exhibition was postponed to January 2021 due to the pandemic. Roberts used those quiet quarantine months to edit the exhibition deeper and go bigger. The pandemic revealed the preciousness of human life, and fueled the collagist to heighten existing mixed media pieces. Black children needed to be seen and affirmed on a grander scale.

“There is a real need to protect children of color because they are just as, if not more vulnerable than their peers...”
Deborah Roberts, We are soldiers, 2019. © Deborah Roberts. Courtesy the artist; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Vielmetter Los Angeles

Collaged works on canvas using acrylic and ink feature the pretty Black girls usually found in Roberts’s work, as well a Black girls and boys together, or just Black boys. Some collages are bathed in a black background, a departure from their usual stark white backdrops. Roberts’s text-only artworks, including La'Condrea is a noun, 2020, made of silkscreen on paper, present Black women’s names in red underlines, a Microsoft-Word-identified error that showcases the inherent racism buried within technology. Roberts’s crown jewel in the exhibition is a public art mural, Little man, little man, 2020, installed across the museum’s exterior. Inspired by James Baldwin’s 1976 children’s novel Little Man, Little Man (Black literature and writers heavily inform Roberts’s artistry), collaged figures printed on weather-resistant vinyl shows six Black boys displaying happy gestural poses: simply being boys and embracing Black Boy Joy.

The ever-busy Roberts has more in store for 2021: in September, Deborah Roberts: I’m, will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. That month, Roberts will also unveil a solo show with Susanne Vielmetter in Los Angeles, followed by another solo exhibit at Bluecoat in Liverpool, UK, in October.

Haleigh Nickerson

Haleigh Nickerson, Soul Out The Blocks, 2017. Courtesy of Larrie and the artist.

H aleigh Nickerson’s universe is cosmic, soulful and jazzy, a cornucopia of Black womxnhood, sex appeal and agency. The Bay Area native and Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artist weaves complex narratives on Black womxn, from our fantasies to our fears, throughout her photography, installation, sculpture, video and performance practices. “I tend to question where our agency lies in different spaces, and find myself drawn to the superhero as an empowered, emboldened archetype for Black womxn,” says Nickerson. Her artistic lens is a liberated one, looking to Black womxn cultural icons from the past with care and creating multi-dimensional Black ‘sheroes’ for our future selves. These rich stories come alive visually in various parts of her practice, seen in the video work Trust in Me, 2019, where the Parsons MFA alumna embodies the late great Olympian and superheroine Flo-Jo, or in her lavish and sunny yellow installation Wade, 2019, an ode to Black beauty shop culture that also nods to the revered Josephine Baker.

Haleigh Nickerson, Searching For Self As Hero, 2019. Courtesy of Larrie and the artist.

The gorgeous essence of Nickerson’s art is her investigation of Black femininity, its many magical layers and thorny avenues, but it is her reimagining that makes the delivery so potent. She hones in on the superpowers we as Black womxn must tap into for survival, despite processing emotional and societal exhaustion. In the portrait Searching for Self as Hero, 2019, Nickerson presents herself as a masked heroine in a sleek all-black, skin-tight look. The matching black cape, a sculptural hooded piece titled Uniform 1; 2nd Skin, is armed with spikes and designed with heart-shaped bamboo earrings across the chest, showing the heavy-duty armor Black womxn wear to navigate spaces, from the block to the boardroom.

“I think that there is an intrinsic relationship between Black womxnhood and the superhero narrative,” she explains. “Often, we are denied our own narratives. I always come back to Michele Wallace’s 1979 book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman and the whole notion around being denied our own narratives as Black womxn. I think about notions of Black womxn and the necessity to put on armour in different spaces as survival, the armour we wear to survive each day, and the shapeshifter-ness/shapeshifting skill that goes along with that in wearing armour or putting on different personae as protection and safety. There is a constant necessity to transform and overcome our circumstances as a form of survival.”

Haleigh Nickerson, Who is She, 2017. Courtesy of Larrie and the artist.

Nickerson’s immersive installations feel like ready-made spaces Black womxn can just step into. They are packed with references, clues and objects that feel welcoming, nostalgic and empowering. In Through the Fire, 1 (a Chaka Khan classic song), a mannequin head is adorned with fuchsia hair curlers bedecked with name plates that spell out “Rzlient,” an alternative spelling for “resilient.” In another rich installation, Who Is She, 2017, Nickerson’s self-portrait reveals the self-created character Sista Soulja, a Black womxn superhero in full Afrocentric warrior regalia. The work and its Black Wonder Woman archetype draws inspiration from Renee Cox’s Raje, and pays homage to author and raptivist Sister Souljah, whose novel and cassette tape appears among the items in Who Is She.

The legacy of Black cultural womxn icons are the bricks for the house Nickerson builds through her art. Pan-African colors of red, black and green dominate Who Is She, which bursts with shiny textiles, Hype Hair magazines, a Destiny’s Child CD, a Betty Davis album cover, custom Afrocentric lace-up boots, the Sista Soulja costume, and other Black cultural ephemera. “I view the installations as shifting spaces of identity,” says Nickerson. “I build until they become entire worlds, or frameworks that can be entered. They’re usually constructed from a compiling of images, video works, reimagined sculptural objects, found objects, media and technology. All of which have informed my memory, Blackness, and many intersections. They tend to be sensorially over-abundant, and sometimes convoluted.”

“I find myself drawn to the superhero as an empowered, emboldened archetype for Black womxn.”
Haleigh Nickerson, My Beat Bang, 2017. Courtesy of Larrie and the artist.

The young and ambitious artist crafts expansive narratives on Black womxn in her myriad art-making practices, most recently seen in her conceptual portraits of South African actress Thuso Mbedu for Dazed magazine, or in her collective work with Black Image Center, a digital space built for the nurturing of Black creativity. An upcoming and soon-to-be anticipated solo show slated for 2022 is being developed with her New York gallery, Larrie. As well as a collaboration with activist/documentarian Cle “Bone” Shaheed Sloan on Compton’s Finest, a docu-series chronicling a century of Compton, which includes Dr. Dre as an executive producer. Nickerson is serving as its producer. “There is something to be said about how Black womxn carry us into the future in all ways,” she says.

Kamra

Kamra. Portrait courtesy Makeda Sandford.

M any things are currently producing joy in Kamra’s life. Dips in the cerulean blue Atlantic ocean on a recent trip to Turks and Caicos; luxuriating, recalibrating and recharging under the warm Caribbean sun; and witnessing the waves of impact Activation Residency, a Black, trans-led artist residency, continues to ripple throughout the world. The native Minnesotan, born to Black Muslim parents, founded Activation in 2018, based in Woodridge, New York, drawing from observations they saw at Bonnaroo (they worked in the 2018 edition) and other arts-centered festivals. The NYU alum felt QTBIPOC lacked agency in these spaces, and as its Black trans queer founder, Activation would prioritize that liberation. Care, healing and creative rejuvenation are central tenets of Activation’s ethos, which for the past three years has dispatched over 80 Black, Brown, queer, trans, and nonbinary artists up to its southern Catskill Mountains location. Immersed in a calm pastoral setting, QTBIPOC artists can benefit from healing practices, intimate community experiences, and robust dialogues about a safer future. Caretaking and communing with nature stem from Kamra’s roots, being raised in Arizona’s outdoors and looking after their younger siblings.

ACTIVATION RESIDENCY. PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY DANA CHANG, ACTIVATION RESIDENCY RESPITE AS RESISTANCE 2020.

In September of 2020, the residency aptly pivoted to Respite as Resistance. For several weekends – by practicing social distancing, mask wearing and offering health screenings – it served as a healing sanctuary and relaxing haven (a must given the state of the world in 2020). QTBIPOC artists and activists convened for mental rest, creative invigoration, leisure, arts and performance play, capped by meaningful reflections at the weekend’s conclusion. Hosted at the Outlier Inn’s bucolic property upstate, residents read books from their hammocks, soaked in a wood-fired cedar hot tub, enjoyed organic meals from a communal outdoor kitchen, and received soothing massages inside a geodesic dome. “The rewarding and healing returns on Activation Residency Respite as Resistance include the practice of disrupting the binary between facilitator and guest and artist and audience,” says Kamra. “The grassroots nature of a residency by artists for artists challenges hierarchy and systems and structures that do not serve our highest and best.”

ACTIVATION RESIDENCY. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY DANA CHANG, ACTIVATION RESIDENCY RESPITE AS RESISTANCE 2020.

For the Brooklynite, the multiplicity of their mediums shine, as an artist, writer, trained singer and musical composer. The last several years of building and engaging in musical festivals and spaces will culminate on their first EP, a project in company with their beloved peers. Kamra is also deeply invested in permaculture and has initiated a Farming Futurity fund to expand Activation’s program. Kamra envisions a forest garden artist residency where the approach is luxurious, verdant, ethical and sustainable.

“The grassroots nature of a residency by artists for artists challenges hierarchy and systems and structures that do not serve our highest and best.”
Still from Activation Tv. Courtesy SoMad and Activation Residency.

Another joyful thread of Activation is the newly launched Activation TV, a stimulating and radical digital collaboration with SoMad. In the 20 episodes, Kamra and fellow young, gifted and Black queer and trans peers share exchanges on the magnificence of Blackness, the beautiful layers of gender identity, and the power of just shutting up sometimes on social media. “Activation TV is mysterious and unnamable to me, just like Blackness,” the artist says, adding, “it is an archive of sorts and also, an opportunity for us to be together during a time when physical togetherness is challenging. The three shows, Black Feels, Black Gaze and Show and Tea, feature live performances and sacred conversations with artists, organizers and leaders championing equity. Activation TV aims to create a space where intimate dialogue is celebrated, providing viewers everywhere access to raw and candid futurity and transformation rarely witnessed in a watching experience.”

So much cultural ideation and futurity-building spills out of Kamra, and it’s breathtaking to watch. Next comes the program curation of Activation for the 2021–22 cycle, to be decided by them and a consortium, who will pick two artists, as well as Activation’s inaugural merch drop, featuring a special limited-edition and eco-friendly 'Black Trans Joy is Sacred' sweatshirt, designed by Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo. This influential piece is currently available on Activation’s shop, as well as, Kamra hints, “some secret projects coming out this year with brands we love.”

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