In 2017 and on a trip to New York City, I visited the Brooklyn Museum to view Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern. It was a beautiful spring day and before the thought of social distancing would come to rule our world. I was with a friend; we weren’t in a hurry. As I passed the entrance desk, there was a card advertising another show being staged at the same time, titled We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85. I picked up the card that day, visited the exhibition, and loved it so much that the card has been pinned to a tack board in my home studio since that afternoon. The card is photographed above, and you can see the two holes where tacks held this in place for the last three years. That day, those two exhibitions seem like a dream now. What we would all give to have a leisurely day in public, viewing life- and work-changing exhibitions?
Emma Amos was one of the myriad artists featured in this exhibition. The image below, titled “Preparing for a Face Lift,” and included in the exhibition, made such a deep impression on me that long, slow, leisurely afternoon. The Brooklyn museum described it this way: “Emma Amos’s wry work on paper mimics several tropes of fashion magazines, transferring the advice column model of self-improvement to her experience as a black woman trying to make it in the art world. Here she scrutinizes the physical toll of racism and sexism and the tyranny of cultural expectations for women’s beauty.”
Preparing for a Face Lift, Emma Amos, etching with crayon, 1981
There were so many interesting and inspiring Black women artists featured in that show which was curated and organized by “Catherine Morris, Sackler Family Senior Curator for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, and Rujeko Hockley, former Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum.”
Alva Rogers, Sandye Wilson, Candace Hamilton, Derin Young and Lisa Jones, 1986, from Lorna Simpson via the Dazed article “These radical black artists stood against white feminism.”
Here’s the stupendous list of artists from the Brooklyn Museum about this landmark exhibition:
The artists represented in the exhibition include Emma Amos, Camille Billops, Kay Brown, Vivian E. Browne, Linda Goode Bryant, Beverly Buchanan, Carole Byard, Elizabeth Catlett, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Ayoka Chenzira, Christine Choy and Susan Robeson, Blondell Cummings, Julie Dash, Pat Davis, Jeff Donaldson, Maren Hassinger, Janet Henry, Virginia Jaramillo, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, Lisa Jones, Loïs Mailou Jones, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Carolyn Lawrence, Samella Lewis, Dindga McCannon, Barbara McCullough, Ana Mendieta, Senga Nengudi, Lorraine O’Grady, Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, Alva Rogers, Alison Saar, Betye Saar, Coreen Simpson, Lorna Simpson, Ming Smith, and Carrie Mae Weems.
We will come back to this outstanding exhibition in the future; but for now, and as part of our ongoing series highlighting #ThoseWhoInspireUs, we take a moment to shine a light on the work of painter, printmaker, and weaver Emma Amos, who passed away recently at age 83, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Amos was born in Atlanta, Georgia, to parents who owned a drugstore. She displayed artistic talent very early on, painting and drawing at the age of six. She attended segregated schools in Atlanta, but at the young age of 16, moved to Ohio to attend Antioch University. As part of that program, she studied at the London Central School of Art, focusing on printmaking, painting, and weaving. After school, she moved to New York, but the influence of Atlanta never left her. She wrote, “Even though Atlanta and most cities during my youth were segregated, the arts, schools, and smart creative people were beacons of light. The city was a good place for black people with big dreams, and it continues to be a major site for black colleges, businesses, artists, and political figures.” Emma’s parents were part of Atlanta’s Black intellectual circles, building friendships with writer Zora Neale Hurston and meeting with W.E.B. DuBois.
Baby, oil on canvas, 1966
In 1961, Amos was hired by Dorothy Liebes, a textile designer, and created rugs for a decade for major textile manufacturers. During this time, she was also invited to become a member of Spiral, a collective of black artists that included Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff. During its existence, she was the youngest and only female member. She was reportedly also a member of the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist collective that confronted misogyny in the art world through protest, writings, and artwork. The members always made appearances wearing gorilla masks, so no one knew exactly who was involved. Emma once stated, “I was a member of a very famous clandestine women’s group that worked at night and did not ever go out without masks on our faces,” but never officially confirmed her involvement.
As a Black woman, Amos faced a number of obstacles as she began her career. She was often turned down because she was young, female, and Black. According to Smithsonian Magazine, she was aware that white artists – particularly white male artists – did not face the same degree of struggle. “At the time,” they wrote, “portraying any black figure, and especially a black woman – a figure almost invisible in the historical European-American canon – could be seen as social commentary.”
Throughout her career, Amos blended the images of history, current events, and her personal life into her paintings, including racism, sexism, and class struggle – both in society and within the art community. Her use of color was significant, as was her combination of media like painting, photography, and print media. As an artist, she said, “we’re always talking about color, but colors are also skin colors, and the term ‘colored’ itself—it all means something else to me. You have to choose, as a black artist, what color to make your figures. . . butterscotch, brown or really black.” She was quoted as saying, “Every time I think about color, it’s a political statement. It would be a luxury to be white and never have to think about it.”
Yo Man Ray Yo, 2000
Like many Black and female artists, Amos received the majority of her success in the latter part of her career, though she exhibited extensively throughout her life. Successful exhibitions like 2018’s “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” organized by the Tate Modern in London, and “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85,” organized by the Brooklyn Museum, put her back in the spotlight. Her work is included in collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Wadsworth Atheneum and she served on the Board of Governors of Skowhegan and in the National Academy Museum.
Look to the Sun, African fabric and acrylic on canvas, 2014
In her artist statement, Emma wrote, “Though I have lived in New York for most of my life, my work often returns to memories of Atlanta, my hometown. Growing up with family and friends in the South that I still love, we all tried many ways to change the order of things…my work has often taken shots at assumptions about skin color and the privileges of power and of whiteness…the work reflects my investigations into the otherness often seen by white male artists, along with the notion of desire, the dark body versus the white body, racism, and my wish to provoke more thoughtful ways of thinking and seeing.”