Emma Amos does not have an image.
For Emma Amos, painting was, at its essence, a political act. Her art, a combination of paintings, prints, and weaving, demands attention through its vibrant colors and thought-provoking subject matter.
Born in Atlanta to a middle-class, mixed-black family during segregation, Amos started making art early in life. She began to draw at the age of six and would go on to study art at Antioch College at the age of sixteen. From a young age she was exposed to influential family friends such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Dubois, and Hale Woodruff, who inspired her to dream big.
She was initially drawn to abstraction, but during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s gradually shifted to the figures she is known for today. Amos’ use of the figure allowed her to explore aspects of human identity—race, nationality, gender, and the blurring of binary into multiplicity—that became the core of her work. She challenged category and connotation, asking her audience to rethink their preconceived notions of what it meant to be Black, white, woman, and American. She wove and sewed in a time when such crafts were dismissed, largely for their association with ‘women’s work.’ Pushing past demeaning critics, in the late 70s and early 80s she began creating pieces that combined painting with crafting. She would often incorporate pieces of fabric like a collage or border her paintings with textiles woven by herself or purchased from African countries such as Ghana, South Africa, and Mali. The success that came from these works reasserted sewing and weaving as valid forms of art. Amos was a teacher through her art and through her career as a professor, working at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University for many years of her life. In 2004 she was given a lifetime achievement award by the Women’s Caucus for Art.
While a graduate student at New York University, family friend and artist Hale Woodruff invited Amos to join Spiral, an all-black artists group dedicated to the political role of Black artists and their work. As both the youngest member and the only woman, she was often subject to sexism from the other members. Her overlapping identities of being both Black and a woman meant that she was discriminated against in many environments, and she was aware that this overlap created a unique position for her and other Black women in the United States. Wary of the white-centric feminist movement, Amos later joined more inclusive feminist groups such as the Heresies Collective and the Guerilla Girls. Since 2016, Amos’ inclusion in the traveling exhibitions Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power and We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965 – 1985 garnered her increased acclaim and attention.
Amos pushed past conventionality in her work, rising above traditionally accepted rules and urging her audience to question what they were told to believe.
-Vivian Monteiro SC ’23, summer 2021 Getty Curatorial Intern
Amos, Emma. “Artist’s Statement.” EmmaAmos.com. Accessed June 15, 2021. https://emmaamos.com/about/.
Holland Cotter. “Emma Amos, Painter Who Challenged Racism and Sexism, Dies at 83.” The New York Times, May 29, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/29/arts/emma-amos-dead.html.
Maximiliano Duron. “How Emma Amos’s Art and Activism Powerfully Confronted Racism and Sexism.” ARTnews, April 30, 2021. https://www.artnews.com/feature/emma-amos-who-is-she-why-is-she-important-1234591424/.