“Coming of age in the bloom of hip hop, Roberts’ early practice was influenced by music and salon culture. This formative engagement with countercultures that would be looted for commercial purposes inspires his use of line, color, and fragmentation. Roberts’ designs and figures acknowledge his own fraught relationship to capitalism.”
Q&A Intro by Chenée Daley: Christophe Roberts is a Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist working in sculpture, painting, design, and installation work. His practice explores complex masculinities, rebel origin myths, and the commodification of identity through meditations on mass culture iconography. Roberts repurposes everyday objects with an intention to reconfigure their meaning and positioning in the familiar public archive. On a Wednesday night, Roberts, joined by his assistant Laura, are hard at work on new sculptures. With the sounds of Daft Punk blasting in the background of his brightly-lit Brooklyn studio, the artist goes on to tell me about his recent residency with luxury brand Mark Cross, being inspired by African and Caribbean folklore, the numerous projects he’s juggling right now, and the joy of winning his very first art prize.
CD: How has 2020 been for you?
CR: Excellent. This is such a big moment out of everything that's been going on. For my practice it’s probably one of our craziest years.
CD: Wow, that’s ideal, considering a lot of people have been experiencing the opposite.
CR: It was a surprise to me too, but also, artists have a chance to really get going and hone in on whatever they're destined to do right now. Cause everything got taken away from them.
CD: Tell me about the projects you’re working on right now.
CR: I'm in an art residency with Mark Cross right now, a luxury fashion brand. I work with commercial brands half the time, work with them for my own narrative and perspective because oftentimes, I'm not working with them in a generic manner. They're bringing me their waste. This is my first time working with a luxury brand.
CD: That’s exciting. To that point, I know you referenced African art as a methodology for how you collect scraps and props, and I wanted to ask you if the pandemic has limited your means?
CR: I bring stuff in off the streets constantly, whatever I see that works for our practice or what we're working on. I pull a lot of inspiration from Caribbean and African folk tales. I had a solo show in 2019, How the Lion Got his Roar, based on a Zimbabwe folklore tale that I found at the Strand in this out of print, thick novel of African folklore. I've been able to pull tons of inspiration from just how much we use animal archetypes to tell a story and signify different characters from the Bible and folktales.
My work and process is leaving artefacts behind to preserve my legacy, my family's legacy, a technique that I've adopted from the Bahamian straw markets. I started researching the many hundreds of techniques out there, like basket weaving. Because naturally I was doing this from a child, like cutting up paper plates and making sculptures. I've been digging into my roots, where I come from, what my connection is to some of these talents.
What's been honest and unique about my practice and why I was really honored about this award, is I've walked this borderline between craft, fine art, and commercial, and not really being accepted fully by the fine art world. To see some acknowledgement for that outside of the grind and what we do here is incredible.
El Anatsui (or Mr. Imagination) told his story and it was very similar to my process. He was inspired by packaging he saw on the road. And he saw that as a medium and started building upon it. When I first got known, the thing for me was Nike shoe boxes; they are so urban and commercial. I think it's very similar. Why not? It's going back to the craft, and about my lineage and where I'm from. And it's my story growing up in Chicago, a Bahamian who works with his hands.
CD: In the past, you were also writing hundreds of hip-hop songs and selling your art on door canvases, all while working as a bar-back. And I find it interesting that you really are just using everything in your environment to make art. As a multi-disciplinary artist, are you drawn to certain mediums because of something particular, is something drawing you to one over the other at different times?
CR: I definitely think that there's this fire, there’s this very passionate fire inside when it comes to reinterpreting things and being able to use any type of vessel to really express myself no matter what it is I’m working with that’s in my environment. To your point, I'm a child of hip hop. Like the first time I really interacted with art was my first rap show: KRS-One in Chicago. My mom took me to the show when I was 15. I was embarrassed that she waited in line with me. I started doing graffiti and running around with a crew and rapping. A lot of these tools I started using were, to your point, things that were within reach or things that I had seen or were inspired by being in the inner city of Chicago.
I think the restrictive nature of how I grew up in my household fueled it further when I saw the pushback for no reason. Like, no, you need to go do this and that instead.
CD: What are you thinking about right now during the pandemic?
CR: I counted it for the first time, how many times I’ve been arrested, nine times. And I'm not a criminal. This is for stupid stuff. I’m 16 smoking and whatever it was. It took me a while to sit with that and realize that being used to that wasn't normal. I think a lot of people went through similar situations, re-analyzing their environment. Things they put up with in meetings, trying to get a job, and just functioning in this world. I stopped the things that I had going that brought in automatic income to respond to the times. It’s like Baldwin said, we have this responsibility as artists when things are going on like this. When I stopped and took on some of those pieces, they all got rewarded tenfold. That's when Spike [Lee] came around and that's when BRIC came around. Even when I had clients like Jordan and Nike, there was a risk of losing their accounts from speaking up. You have to take responsibility for who you are as an artist, really dig into yourself, into your practice, and stretch yourself. That is what a lot of the new works have been about, they've had that fire inside of them and it's still going.
CD: You said this is your first, ever, art prize?
CR: This is my very first one. The first one is the most special one. I first got into the art world and was represented by a big gallery in New York. I got a bad taste of it in terms of what that world was like. It was a lot of tap dancing and a lot of uncomfortable situations. I wasn't going to do or be a part of that. I know right now everybody's going through it. So this is just re-establishing everything I believe in, in a whole other light. It’s a blessing.
Listen to the full interview:
Interviews have been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Interviews were conducted by Chenée Daley; a Jamaican-born, New York-based multi-genre writer, whose work encompasses poetry, prose, and song. Grounded in the tender narratives of personal histories where place and memory connect, her work has won the first place writing prize from the University of the West Indies, the Caribbean Small Axe writing prize, the Denis Diderot [A-I-R] fellowship from Chateau Orquevaux in Ardenne, France and was recently shortlisted for the Eddie Baugh poet laureate of Jamaica prize. Her work appears in The Wall Street Journal, The Jamaica Observer, Small Axe Journal, The Cordite Review, American Chordata, and BOMB magazine. She has an MFA in writing from Columbia University.