An Artist Without 'Equals': Remembering Artist-Activist Emma Amos

Visual artist Emma Amos in the 1998 documentary Action Lines.
Visual artist Emma Amos in the 1998 documentary Action Lines.
Screenshot: LAndSVideoInc (YouTube)

Emma Amos may not have enjoyed the same level of name recognition of some of her contemporaries in the art world; but as an artist addressing sexism and racism in her work years before the term “intersectionality “ was coined, she was a pivotal figure in what she called “a man’s scene, black or white.” A member of the brief but renowned African-American artists’ collective Spiral, on May 21, Amos died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease in her home in Bedford, N.H. She was 83.

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Born Emma Veoria Amos in 1937, the New York Times reports Amos was of multiracial heritage but raised within a community of black intellectuals in Atlanta, in which the likes of Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. Du Bois were entertained at her parents’ home. Both would eventually make their way into Amos’ art, the Times notes.

Beginning formal art training at age 11, by her teens, Amos’ artwork was being exhibited in the former Atlanta University, now part of HBCU Clark Atlanta. Amos would major in art at Ohio’s Antioch College, further her studied in London before making her way to New York City, where she entered graduate school at N.Y.U.

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While still a student, in 1964, she was invited to join Spiral, then a collective formed in response to the March on Washington. The group included well-established black artists like Romare Bearden and family friend Hale Woodruff, who reportedly extended the invitation to Amos. The Times writes that “the group was formed to discuss and debate the political role of black artists and their work”; Amos, by then a skilled painter and weaver, was the only woman in the collective, which would disband in 1966. Nevertheless, she was already inured to the sexism of the art world.

“I probably seemed less threatening to their egos, as I was not yet of much consequence,” she said of the male members of Spiral, the Times reports, citing a 1999 Art Journal profile written by Amos.

After completing her graduate degree, Amos began to teach in nearby New Jersey, first at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art, where she taught textile design, and later at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University until her retirement in 2008. She also opened a shop on New York City’s Bleeker Street called Threadbare, which specialized in yarn and weaving, and created and co-hosted a crafts show called Show of Hands, which aired on public broadcasting in Boston in the late ‘70s.

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During those decades, the Times described her evolving body of work as such:

Ms. Amos’s paintings from the 1960s and ’70s often depicted, in bright Pop colors, scenes of black middle-class domestic life, a subject little explored in contemporary art at the time. Her work from the following decades became increasingly personal and formally experimental, combining painting, print media and photographic technology.

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As she increasingly explored themes of race and gender, Amos was often the subject of her own work, examples of which are her Wonder Woman-themed self-portrait “Tightrope” (1994), and 1992 painting “Equals,” which combined photography, fabric and paint to render a visual indictment of American ideals: the stars of the nation’s flag are displaced by a sharecropper’s shack as patches of Malcolm X’s visage stare out from the perimeter and Amos’ figure “is seen floating in free fall,” writes the Times. Amos would occasionally also reference more famous artists in her imagery; specific examples include Gauguin’s iconic Tahitian women and the work of portraitist Lucian Freud.

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Like many of us, Amos was “skeptical of the overwhelmingly white feminist movement,” the Times reports. In a 1991 interview in Art Papers, she explained: “From what I heard of feminist discussions in the park, the experiences of black women of any class were left out. I came from a line of working women who were not only mothers, but breadwinners, cultured, educated, and who had been treated as equals by their black husbands. I felt I could not afford to spend precious time away from studio and family to listen to stories so far removed from my own.”

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A mother to a daughter and son herself, Amos wouldn’t have any formal involvement in the movement before the mid-1980s, an era which coincided with the rise of black feminists—or what writer Alice Walker termed “womanists.” Joining the political feminist collective Heresies in 1984, Amos wrote in Art Journal: “the group I had always hoped existed: serious, knowledgeable, take-care-of-business feminists giving time to publish the art and writings of women.” Amos would later also become a member of the more provocative and still active art-activist group Guerrilla Girls.

“It’s always been my contention that for me, a black woman artist, to walk into the studio is a political act,” she said, the Times reports.

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Despite industry recognition—including placements in several museums and a 2004 lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Caucus for Art—public interest in Amos’ work surged in the years before her death. In 2017, her work was featured in two lauded and widely toured retrospectives: “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” and “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85.” In 2018, her work was included in the Brazilian exhibition, “Histórias Afro-Atlânticas” A touring solo retrospective, “Emma Amos: Color Odyssey,” is scheduled to open in in 2021 at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Ga.

As the Times’ obituary notes, Amos’ death, just four days before the murder of George Floyd, occurred at a moment in American history as fraught with racial tension and human rights concerns as any in her 83 years, making her work as relevant as ever.

The fact that Ms. Amos’s art complicates, rather than narrows, notions of identity, racial and otherwise, makes it pertinent to the present moment, when binary thinking of all kinds is under scrutiny. At the same time, her careerlong belief in art as a form of ethical resistance carries new weight when the promises of the civil rights era seem again under threat.

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?

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