Pluralism spelt right

Deborah Roberts reminding us that even a flat sheet of text isn’t a level playing field.

As well as saying that Black lives, history, respect and status matters, I should have added spelling.

The Spell Checkers AgendaKottke
The piece above is part of a series called Pluralism by artist Deborah Roberts — it’s a collage of dozens of Black names marked as misspelled by Microsoft Word’s built-in spell checker. I don’t know about you, but this makes me think about the neutrality of technology, how software is built, who builds it, and for whom it is designed.

Glasstire and Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles have more on this piece, and how it fits in with Deborah’s wider body of work.

Naming and shaming: Deborah Roberts at Art PalaceGlasstire
Other text pieces involve roughly printed words like bad offset printing. In the best of these, Roberts prints black-sounding women’s names (Tynisha, Shawanna, Roneshia) in a jittery, repeated overlay of red and black. Printed over them in a nearly-illegible, but unmistakable, light yellow, are four white women’s names: lean in close and you can barely discern Bethany, Lindsey, Becky, Haley.

Deborah Roberts at Luis De JesusCarla
Opposite Human nature and Golden Smile hung the triptych Sovereignty (2016), a hand-drawn set of three serigraphs of black women’s names that Roberts sourced from friends. The far right in the triptych was a dense list of 213 names, from Khepri to Sharnell. All, however, were underlined with that all-too-familiar squiggly red line—these names were ostensibly misspelled, unrecognizable to word processing programs. The drawing on the left side of the triptych contrasted the list by featuring a sole name— Sharkesha—in large serif font. This work followed a similar logic to the collages: the viewer’s gaze moved from the minute to the masses and back again. However, the simplicity of this solution—names, listed— can’t be ignored. Sovereignty suggested a way to begin to humanize the silent figures that Roberts depicts, or at least to begin to find words that do the work.

Find more of her work on her website or on Instagram.

Author: Terry Madeley

Works with student data and enjoys reading about art, data, education and technology.

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