Emma Amos – Artist, Teacher, and Activist
February 27 2022
photo courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art
Emma Amos was an artist who broke the mold by blending a multitude of artistic mediums to create truly unique pieces. Her art also made powerful statements concerning political and social issues surrounding her while contributing to the change of the previously accepted artistic narrative.
Emma Amos' work was inspired by her African American heritage and her experience as a woman of color in America. She focused heavily on portraying the Black female body and challenged racism and sexism in the art world. By unabashedly portraying underrepresented people and perspectives, Amos challenged viewers to rethink their assumptions about art.
Amos was drawn to art at an early age, and it would become her weapon against injustice throughout her six-decade career as an artist and a teacher. Let's explore the journey of this influential artist and the lasting impact her work has had on the art world.
Artist, Teacher, and Activist
Emma Amos was a painter, printmaker, and weaver. Born in 1937, Amos grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, where her parents ran a pharmacy. She began painting and drawing at six years old, learning how to draw figures from magazines and clothing ads. She discovered a passion that would direct the rest of her life, and her talent was quickly acknowledged.
At age 16, Emma moved to Antioch University's Yellow Springs campus and enrolled in their five-year program. During her fourth year, Amos studied abroad and took courses in printmaking, painting, and weaving at London Central School of Art. After obtaining an Antioch BA degree in 1959, she returned to the London Central School of Art to complete a diploma in etching.
In 1960, Amos had her first solo exhibition in Atlanta. That same year, she made the move to become a part of the thriving New York art scene. There she became an assistant teacher at the Dalton School while she continued making prints on the side.
She began working as a designer and weaver in 1961, creating carpets for a large textile firm. In 1964 she went on to enroll in a master's program in Art Education at New York University. During her time at the university, Amos was recruited to join the historic African American artist collective known as Spiral and became the organization's youngest and only female member.
Emma Amos got married to a man named Bobby Levine in 1965. Over the next five years, Amos and Levine would have a son and a daughter together, during which time Amos also received her MA. As a young mother, Amos would sew, weave, quilt, and even do illustrations for Sesame Street magazine.
As the children got older, Amos went on to teach at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial arts. Several years later, she helped develop and cohost an educational craft show called Show of Hands that ran for two years in Boston.
Amos' breadth of artistic talents was diverse, but she was also aware of the prejudice she faced as a Black female artist. While she had previously avoided highlighting her talents as a weaver, Show of Hands allowed her to share her skills and knowledge as an artist and an educator.
In 1980, the show had stopped airing and Amos went back to teaching as an assistant professor at the Mason Gross School of Art, Rutgers University, where she would continue to teach until her retirement. She earned tenure in 1992, was promoted to Professor II, and served as the department chair for several years.
During this time, she also became the editor of the feminist journal Heresies, through which she continued to explore the politics of the current social culture with focus on the issues of racism, sexism and ethnocentrism.
Along with writing and publishing stories concerning feminism and politics, members of Heresies co-sponsored the Women Artists Visibility Event (W.A.V.E.) at the MoMA in 1984 to protest the "International Survey of Painting and Sculpture" exhibit that predominantly featured white male artists.
After witnessing the dismissal of the protest by many gallery visitors, Amos became a trailblazing member of the anonymous feminist art collective known as the Guerilla Girls that was founded the following year.
Amos retired from teaching in 1988, but she continued to create art until around 2014 when sickness made it difficult. Following a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease, Emma Amos passed away on May 20, 2020 of natural causes.
Today, Emma Amos' work can be found exhibited in well-known venues around the world. Her paintings, prints, and weavings are in the collections of institutions like:
- The Museum of Modern Art
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- The Smithsonian American Art Museum
- The Studio Museum in Harlem
- The Brooklyn Museum
- The Whitney Museum of American Art
- Wadsworth Atheneum
- New Jersey and Minnesota state museums
- Dade County and Newark museums
Emma Amos has also received a number of awards for her art over the years. She was awarded a Ford Foundation Grant in 1967, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1977.
The Smithsonian Institution awarded her the prestigious W.E.B Dubois Award in 1984, and she was elected to the Board of Governors of Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1986. In 1992 she also became an artist member of the National Academy Museum.
After being included in several traveling exhibits that visited some notable museums, Amos' reputation grew considerably. Since 2016, she has been part of major traveling shows such as Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power and We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-1985.
Emma Amos was the recipient of the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson prize from the Georgia Museum of Art in 2016. The same year, she was honored as an Icon by The Studio Museum in Harlem.
The Evolution of Emma Amos’ Artistic Style
Throughout her career, Emma Amos explored the politics of race, sexuality, gender, and Black subjectivity within a predominantly white, Western world. Through her paintings, prints, and textiles, Amos sought to subvert the traditional representations of Black people that are often seen in Western art.
Emma Amos was a hugely inventive artist and printmaker whose breath of work ranges from small-scale figurative works to very large abstract pieces. She has worked in lithography, etching, woodcut, silkscreen, collagraphy, monotype, weaving and photo transfer throughout her career, breaking rules and pushing boundaries with both medium and subject matter along the way.
Amos was inspired by artistic style of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Color Field painting. Her first solo show in Atlanta featured primarily abstract etchings, which would become the foundation for the bold colors, patterned motifs, and whimsical iconography featured in her later works.
After moving to New York, Amos' art turned to more literal depictions of people and figures using chromatic representations rather than abstract color. This would continue to be seen as her career advanced, though she never completely switched over and instead often blended the two into what became her own unique style.
As her career progressed, Amos increasingly combined various mediums in the same work of art. After the airing of her show Show of Hands, one frequent technique became framing her paintings with traditional African woven textiles, bringing depth to both the meaning and the literal appearance of the piece.
By the late 1980's, Amos took her artistic style and infused it with action and movement. The characters in her pieces were often falling, floating, or suspended in motion. These portrayals left the realm of reality to be replaced by expressionistic metaphors.
Changing the Artistic Narrative
Emma Amos started exploring the use of bold color early in her career, and with time, these colors became a way of highlighting or accentuating the messages of the featured characters.
Amos sometimes portrayed herself as well as friends and family in her pieces, while other times they were unnamed people or representations of an idea; in either case, the characters are engaged in the scene.
She intentionally made the Black women depicted in her pieces active participants in the artwork rather than passive figures meant just to be looked at, and they stimulate important discussions regarding sexism, racism, anxiety, and colonialism. Emma Amos' works force viewers to confront their own preconceived notions about race, gender, and art, in-turn expanding the dialogue around these topics.
One of Amos' most famous paintings, entitled Tightrope, depicts Amos herself on a high wire. She is wearing a Wonder Woman costume and a painter's smock, and balances on a tightrope above a crowd of blurred faces. In her other hand, she holds a paintbrush, and in the other she holds a T-shirt that bears an undeniable resemblance to the artist Paul Gauguin's 1899 portrayal of his teenage Tahitian mistress Teha'amana from the painting Two Tahitian Women.
By borrowing an image from the work of a celebrated European artist, Amos calls attention to the ways in which Western art has often objectified and exoticized Black women, and she critiques the male-dominated art world and its tendency to celebrate white men. By inserting herself into the painting as both subject and creator, Amos shows that she is in control and not limited by anyone else's views.
Much of Amos' art depicted the Black female body as a way of normalizing its presence in art, particularly in a non-sexualized manner. One such example is her 1981 piece To Sit (With Pochoir), in which Amos offers a realistic portrayal of two Black women in bathing suits alongside a combination of bold prints and cut-out lines that were unique to her blending of styles.
Amos also looked beyond the problems faced by only women in addressing political and social issues such as racism. In the early 1980's her series entitled Athletes and Animals, for example, explored the ways in which sports iconography is used to exoticize and objectify Black men and women.
By paralleling images of sports players with lions, cheetahs, and crocodiles, she suggests the fleeting and illusory power, both in physicality and influence, of the black athlete. In works such as these, Amos provides a counterpoint to the limited and damaging representations of Black people that are so often seen in the media.
Addressing Personal Anxieties
Amos’ Falling Series of the late 1980’s went on to explore Amos's worries about the loss of history, place, and people. Pondering the economic downturn of the time, she used dancers, singers, and other characters to represent her own social, political, and economic concerns.
Figures would be portrayed falling and tumbling through various abstracted spaces, often surrounded music notes or illegible letters. These pieces portrayed a juxtaposition between the fear and uncertainty associated with the fall of civilization as it was then understood, and the hope and security instilled by the vivid colors and the solid, reliable textile borders.
Much of Amos' later art features the Confederate flag as a way of commenting on the ongoing legacy of colonialism in America. As can be seen in her 1992 piece X-Flag, one or multiple 'x's often appear throughout many of these pieces to symbolize the breaking of connection between the past and present, as well as the fractures within American society itself.
Emma Amos was a groundbreaking artist whose work challenges the art world's conventions and champions the narratives of Black women. She used her art to confront viewers with issues such as race, gender, colonialism, and ethnocentrism, and she did it with a unique blend of styles and talents that were powerful, yet playful at the same time. As an artist, a teacher, and an activist, Amos’ work has created a lasting change in the artistic narrative.