In ‘Blk & Blue,’ N.Y. Artist Focuses on Mental Illness In Communities of Color

Featured on The Washington Post. Author: Erin Blakemore

Malik Roberts’s art show might give you the blues.

And that’s the point. “Blk & Blue,” at New York’s ABXY gallery through Dec. 18, is the outgrowth of the Brooklyn artist’s blue period. But while Pablo Picasso used his famous blue period to track the despair of turn-of-the-20th-century Spaniards, Roberts has turned his lens — and his paintbrush — toward mental illness in communities of color.

Rates of mental illness among black Americans are similar to those of whites. But when it comes to care, racial gaps widen. Black people are less likely to receive quality care and more likely to be incarcerated if they have symptoms of bipolar disease and schizophrenia. And pervasive bias, from the everyday traumas of casual racism to the effects of systemic inequality, can exacerbate and prolong mental health struggles.

“Environments that cause illnesses like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder — these are our landscapes,” Roberts writes. Roberts uses the color blue to create sensitive portraits of everyone from a hungry child to a worn-out family. The show includes figurative sculpture, too.

Roberts’s subjects are both fragmented and uplifted. Their faces and bodies are collagelike, their internal struggles revealed by windowlike eyes and doodles around their brains and cheeks. Visitors to the gallery can experience an interactive side of the paintings, too, using augmented-reality iPads.

African Americans are more likely than white Americans to experience psychological distress, but just 1 in 3 who need treatment will seek it. For Roberts, who was inspired by painters such as Caravaggio, it also is important to look at the environmental and societal factors that cause those ongoing disparities.

Roberts and his blue subjects demand that we consider how inequality and generational trauma seed mental-health problems from the start. These blues, his work suggests, are hard to kick. His subjects have absorbed so much sorrow and stress that they are now the sum of their fractured, hidden, painful parts.

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