Open Studio: Imani Shanklin Roberts’s Vivid Portraits Uplift Often Overlooked Subjects—See Them Here

Get a closer look at new artists' practices via digital showcases of their works.

Portrait of Imani Shanklin Roberts, 2021.

Artnet Open Studios is a curatorial project produced by the Artnet Galleries team that grants underrepresented artists the distinct benefits of Gallery Network membership. This initiative widens the scope of discovery by featuring BIPOC artists who are actively expanding their online presence and collector relationships. Open Studios takes a closer look into the artists’ practices with digital showcases of their works. 

The 29-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based artist Imani Shanklin Roberts paints vibrant oil portraits of Black people—and women, in particular. Her portraits are often joyful, brimming with personality and bursting with a sense of life. While her portraits are specific (in that we are looking at an individual person), her titles are often archetypal—Priestess, for instance, or Lover or Visionary. These figures take on a tarot-like symbolism while remaining rooted in the real figure. For Shanklin Roberts, these oil paintings are a way of turning art history on its head. Here, the Western, often elitist medium of oil painting is employed to elevate the voices of the historically oppressed and unheard. 

Below, we talked with Shanklin Roberts about the artists that inspire her, and how her political beliefs inform her paintings.

Name: Imani Shanklin Roberts
Age: 29
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Current City: Washington, D.C.
Medium(s): Oil-on-canvas paintings, film, and cultivating spaces for healing.

How did you first become interested in art, and how did you come to your practice as it is today? 

Nothing stuck but art—not soccer, taekwondo, cheerleading, or the many other extracurricular activities that piqued my limited interest. I doodled, watched art programming, marveled at the African diasporan art in my childhood home. I was enamored by the women I looked up to who lived artfully. 

My father, a self-taught artist, historian, and educator, encouraged my artistry by example. My mother, an educator, nurtured my talent through investing in classes throughout Washington, D.C. The combination of all these things contributed to my persistence in pursuing the arts—choosing to pursue arts education at Pratt Institute felt like the natural next step. It was an opportunity to create educative experiences around the arts at an institution engaged with the arts in a multitude of ways. My teachers, fellow educators, and peer group affirmed me and expanded my work. This experience cemented my embodiment as an artist. Whether as a fine artist, educator, and now art therapist in training, my commitment to the arts is holistic and thorough. 

If you had to describe your work in four sentences or less, what would you say?
Artful moments with the 21st-century black woman in truth-seeking and self-exploration. 

Who are your artistic heroes and why?
As a painter, I love Mickalene Thomas, Alice Neel, Kehinde Wiley, Barkley Hendricks, Amy Sherald, and Kerry James Marshall. Their approaches to capturing the human form are all so distinctive, yet each honors the form boldly, confrontationally, and intently. When I think of true embodied art heroism I think of bell hooks, Carrie Mae Weems, Audre Lorde, and Lorraine O’Grady. These black womxn feel fearless in their exploration of their existence and were so thoughtful in their self-examination. Their work feels grounded in so much truth. 

What are your greatest inspirations? 

My greatest inspiration is self-realized liberation—a freedom that isn’t reliant on systems or others to grant permission or break chains. Freedom of our being to engage happiness, love, pleasure, pain, anger, and each other passionately. The pursuit of this freedom by Black people is the most compelling to me. 

If you could own any work of art in the world what would it be?
Of the contemporary painters, I would love a Tschabalala Self piece. Her work is so powerful to me. The Untitled piece by Kerry James Marshall that depicts a black female painter in front of her canvas holding a largely white palette is one of my forever favorites.

Browse works by the artist below.


Visionary (2019)
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Imani Shanklin Roberts, Visionary (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

Imani Shanklin Roberts, Visionary (2019). Courtesy of the artist.


High Powered Woman of the World (2019)
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Imani Shanklin Roberts, High Powered Woman of the World (2019)

Imani Shanklin Roberts, High Powered Woman of the World (2019)


Bruja (Priestess) (2019)
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Imani Shanklin Roberts, Bruja/ Priestess (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

Imani Shanklin Roberts, Bruja (Priestess) (2019). Courtesy of the artist.


Rebel Woman (2019)
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Imani Shanklin Roberts, Rebel Woman (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

Imani Shanklin Roberts, Rebel Woman (2019). Courtesy of the artist.


CareFREE & Black (2019)
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Imani Shanklin Roberts, CareFREE & Black (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

Imani Shanklin Roberts, CareFREE & Black (2019). Courtesy of the artist.


Discover more works by Imani Shanklin Roberts on Artnet Open Studios.

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