Emma Amos is an African American artist, who combines printmaking, painting, and textiles in her work. In her mixed-media work, the main subject is usually figurative and is usually – but not always – clothed.
Amos was raised in Atlanta, Georgia, where her family was involved in the rich cultural scene cultivated by African American colleges, businessmen, and community leaders in the face of legal segregation at that time. 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 N.Y.U. 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 only female invited to join Spiral, an early collective of approximately 15 African American male artists in New York City, 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 presents 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 depicts a happy couple and spotlights 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 the early 1980s, Amos joined the feminist group 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.
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.
Amos’s combination of vibrant color and patterns in her paintings presages 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 mimics 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 scrutinizes the physical toll of racism and sexism and the tyranny of cultural expectations for women’s beauty.
Amos has had numerous solo exhibitions 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, 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.