Emma Amos is an African American artist, a painter and weaver, who combines printmaking, painting, and textiles in her mixed-media work. Her main subject is usually figurative and is almost always clothed. She approaches canvases as woven fabric, which binds painting to weaving. She weaves linen thread into large rectangles onto which she affixes African textiles and silhouetted figures in fabric with abstract swatches and trailing threads.
Amos was raised in Atlanta, Georgia, where her family was involved in a rich cultural scene, cultivated by African American colleges, businessmen, and community leaders who thrived in spite of segregation. Amos graduated from Antioch College in 1958. In 1959, she attended the London Central School of Art. Returning to New York, she became an assistant at the Dalton School and was introduced to the East Hampton art scene. She became a textile designer, and her designs were transformed into unique carpets before she received her M.A. from New York University in 1966.
Living in New York, Amos found herself closed off from the art world owing to her race and gender. When she was 23 years old, she was the youngest member and only female artist who joined Spiral, an early collective of 15 African American male artists, who were interested in social change. Spiral included now-celebrated male artists such as Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff. Before being admitted to Spiral, Amos had to submit her work to the male artists for approval. “They were very nervous about having a woman in their group,” she later said. “They wanted to make sure I was a real artist and not a dilettante or something.”
In one of Amos’ paintings, a 1966 self-portrait “Flower Sniffer” Amos presented herself alone in a vast abstract field of paint, enjoying the fragrance of flowers. The artist steadily returns the viewer’s gaze, asserting and defining her own place within her work as she arranges a flower bouquet. In “Sandy and Her Husband” 1973 she depicted a happy couple posing in contemporary fashions as she did in her earlier “Flower Sniffer.”
During the 1970s, Amos taught textile design at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts. She was able to thrive as a weaver due to the rise of weaving and fabric art in the Feminist Art Movement.
In 1980, she began as an assistant professor at the Mason Gross School of Art at Rutgers University. She worked her way up to full professorship and served as the Chair of the Art Department before her retirement in 2008.
In the early 1980s, Amos joined the feminist collective Heresies and found that her previous disdain for white feminists disappeared. She felt that female artists of both races were equally discriminated against and that both groups were in the same situation when it came to showing and selling their art.
Amos wove linen thread into large rectangles onto which she fastened African textiles and silhouetted figures in fabric as in her 1982 “Out in Front.” Her combination of vibrant color and patterns in her paintings presaged her later use of African kangas, Dutch wax prints, and other textiles in her figurative paintings of the 1980s, which had a great influence on artist Mickalene Thomas.
Amos’s wry work on paper mimicked several tips 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. In her 1981 “Preparing for a Face Lift,” an etching and crayon on paper, she scrutinized the physical toll of racism and sexism and the tyranny of cultural expectations for women’s beauty.
Amos has had her work exhibited in galleries, colleges, and museums such as Douglas College, Bronx Museum, Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center, College of Wooster Art Museum, Montclair Museum of Art, California African American Museum, and Antioch College.
In 2020, she will have a solo retrospective at Georgia Museum of Art. Her work is in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Wadsworth Atheneum, and New Jersey and Minnesota State Museums.