Debra Roberson Interview
Artist incorporates the impact of slavery in her works
Debra Roberson’s exhibition, “Cane River Chronicles: Unveiled,” at Artspace prompts viewers to consider our role in helping each other thrive. Wilkerson and Roberson discuss her photography practice and the inspirations for her exhibition that explores darkness, despair and desire.
Emily Wilkerson (EW): This body of work is centered around images you’ve taken over the past few years in Natchitoches. Why did you choose to focus on this area?
Debra Roberson (DR): This whole series started because my niece came to me and asked, “Is it true that black people used to be slaves?” That question jarred me. I grew up spending summers with my grandparents in Natchitoches, and we would often go for walks downtown, passing a degrading statue called “The Good Darky.” If we passed white folks, we had to cross the street and avert our eyes. I knew I had to do something to preserve this history because, while some things have changed, a lot is still the same.
The specific area that I highlighted in Natchitoches is called Breda Town. My grandfather once lived on Hyman Cohen Plantation and later moved to Breda Town once he bought land there, built a house out of used wood and paid off his debts to the plantation store. Today, Breda Town, the former site of the Breda Plantation, is a predominantly Black and low-income neighborhood.
EW: A poignant aspect of your art practice is connecting history to present-day life. What are some of the ways the impact of slavery shows up in the Natchitoches area today, and how do you incorporate this into your work?
DR: Inspired by my research into oppressive laws that were put into place after the Emancipation Proclamation, I learned that since 1970, the total jail population in Louisiana has increased by 665%, and 52% of Louisiana’s black residents are in jail. I include these statistics in the exhibition because this dynamic has been going on for decades due to laws that prevented black men from voting and kept them in slavery, away from their families – understanding this is key to truly seeing the big picture.
EW: What inspires the way you capture your surroundings?
DR: When I was young, I saved up for a Canon camera, and ever since, I’ve been taking pictures. In terms of structuring pictures around telling a story, that’s recent. I also had a fellowship in Eastern Europe in the 1980s that left a lasting impact and informed a deep examination of oppression and power.
My impetus for my practice today is Gordon Parks. I used to pick up Jet and Ebony magazines and see what was going on during the ’60s and the early ’70s. I’ve also been very inspired by Dorothea Lange, and my father is a big inspiration for me to keep learning.
EW: What keeps you hopeful in the face of adversity?
DR: Truthfully, my faith in God. I can look back and see where I’ve come from and the things that I’ve done to make it out of those situations. I hold onto the hope that you can thrive in the midst of whatever you face in life.