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I Do Solemnly Swear (Nessun Dorma series)

I Do Solemnly Swear (Nessun Dorma series)
signed and dated 'Deborah Roberts 2018' (on the reverse)
mixed media collage on canvas
65 x 45 in. (165.1 x 114.3 cm.)
Executed in 2018.
Vielmetter, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Los Angeles, Vielmetter, Deborah Roberts: Native Sons: Many thousands gone, April-June 2019.
Further details
Please note this work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition featuring Deborah Roberts's work at the McNay Art Museum in October 2022-January 2023.

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Lot Essay

I Do Solemnly Swear (Nessun Dorma series) has a mesmerizing visual poetry to it, with its black lines both abstracting and emphasizing the bodies of the two young Black figures. The harmonious mirroring of the two young men’s physical stances injects a rhythm under the work’s surface, allowing the eye to travel back and forth between the two, tracing the black stripes of the baggy clothes. In this quiet beauty, Roberts’s mastery shines: she is able to challenge institutionalized ideals of beauty with a work that itself exemplifies aesthetic harmony, all while raising important questions of race and justice. One of the central tenets of Roberts’s career has been a questioning of ideals, whether they be institutionalized conceptions of beauty or the veneer of heroic justice overlaying the American criminal courts system. In I Do Solemnly Swear (Nessun Dorma series), these two drivers of Roberts’s art intersect. She lays bare the lenses through which we view the bodies of both young Black men and women while exposing the specific burdens and traumas confronting this population.

The Nessun Dorma series, from which the present work hails, pays homage to George Stinney, Jr., who, in 1944 at the age of fourteen, was wrongfully sentenced and executed for the murder of two white girls, ages seven and eleven. Moments like this in America's past tragically resonate with recent instances of Black children being fatally targeted and criminally prosecuted as adults. The violence in these cases arises from the thick fog of phantasmagoria through which the Black body is perceived. In Roberts’s work, the viewer is reminded of the racial biases the American justice system harbors in its very foundations. Roberts mixes signifiers of agedness and youth in her precise collaging, casting into high relief the stolen adolescence and demanded early maturity of young Black boys. All of Roberts's devices elicit questions from any viewing of the work: who are these young men? What were their crimes? The emotional gravity of these inquiries is only amplified by the lack of concrete answers the work provides, leaving the viewer to ponder questions of race, gender and justice in charged silence.

The title of the work offers some insight into Roberts’s conceptual process. The phrase “I do solemnly swear” is one that elected officials must recite in their oaths of office, including senators and the President of the United States. The oath binds the speaker to support and defend the Constitution, this United States’s most hallowed legal document. When this grandiose phrase is juxtaposed with Roberts's striking visuals, there is a disconnect: the most sacred rites of American liberty and justice are revealed as farce against the resigned fear radiating from the two figures on the canvas. Roberts adds another source of tension in the name of the series to which the work belongs. “Nessun Dorma” is the title of an aria sung in Puccini’s masterpiece, Turandot, that confirms and precedes a mass execution of the kingdom’s courtiers. The song has come to represent the height of musical beauty, yet Roberts chooses to highlight its grisly subject matter with her own choice of visual subject.

Deborah Roberts’s powerful work, I Do Solemnly Swear (Nessun Dorma series) epitomizes the artist’s ability to deliver a charged statement on political and aesthetic ideals through visuals ringing both arresting and poetic. In this mixed media work, Roberts knits together photography, painting and truth to create a seamless pair of figures standing at attention, left arms raised in stiff and abstracted salute. The bodily proportions, the baggy uniforms and the stockinged feet all hint at childhood innocence, suggesting that the two figures are in their youth; yet, the outsized largeness of their right, oath-taking hands, their prisoner stripes and the sunken eye of the leftmost figure imply an aged weariness. Roberts’s talent for creating visual tension by tugging on opposite ends of the same conceptual line is typified by the present lot, at once an iconic and historic masterpiece from one of today's most prescient creators.

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