Emma Amos: Photo Transfer Works to Address the Contentious Body
Amos’s practice is deeply rooted in challenging perceptions of the black body as it has been depicted throughout art history by white male artists. Her work re-frames subjects and themes that address racial, geographical, gender and sexual perspectives. Beginning in the 1990s, Amos’s use of photo transfer techniques and collage is a logical process of appropriating images to re-contextualize and re-evaluate them through her own lens.
Valued (1999) is a monumental painting that depicts four shirtless black men—models and former studio assistants of Amos—posed in reference to the Black Power salute, employed by black athletes during the 1968 Olympics as a protest. From the original digital photograph of the four men, Amos created an IRIS print and transferred the figures onto the canvas, bordered with Kente cloth and fabric American currency.
In the self-portrait Tightrope (1994), Amos paints herself in a Wonder Woman suit and black robe negotiating a tightrope strung over a frenetic blur of spectators and disembodied eyes. In her outstretched arms she holds two paintbrushes in an X and a t-shirt printed with a nude female torso. This torso is taken from Paul Gauguin’s 1899 painting Two Tahitian Women, which also appears miniaturized in photo transfers onto fabric at the four corners of Amos’s painting, punctuating its border made of African fabrics. Quoting from both the modern art canon and popular culture, Amos makes clear that she is an active and powerful agent—artist and super hero—in a balancing act. She assumes the role of the female artist, while acknowledging the risk involved in challenging inherited perceptions of the black female body as a sexualized object for visual consumption.
Models (1995) continues to question artistic authority and historical representations of the body, again using painting and photo transfer to juxtapose a copy of Gauguin’s Tahitian Girl with classic Greek sculpture and an anthropological photograph of an African woman.
Emma Amos (b. 1938 Atlanta, GA) is a distinguished painter, printmaker, and weaver. She was the youngest and only woman member of Spiral, the historic African American collective founded in 1963, as well as a member of the important feminist collective, Heresies, established in the 1980s. Influenced by modern Western European art, Abstract Expressionism, the Civil Rights movement and feminism, Amos explores the politics of culture and issues of racism, sexism and ethnocentrism through her paintings and works on paper. Over six decades, she has employed color theory, innovative printmaking and weaving techniques, photo-transfer and collage. Amos graduated from Antioch College in Ohio in 1958 and the Central School of Art in London in 1960. She subsequently moved to New York and became active in the downtown arts scene, working alongside prominent Spiral artists such as Romare, Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Norman Lewis, Alvin Hollingsworth and Charles Alston. In 1965, she earned her Masters in Arts from New York University and taught art at the Dalton School in New York. She is a former Professor and Chair in Visual Arts at the Mason Gross School of Art at Rutgers University where she taught for 28 years. Her work is held in the collections of the Bass Museum of Art, Miami; Birmingham Museum of Art; British Museum, London; Bronx Museum of Art, New York; Fowler Museum of Art, Los Angeles; James F. Byrnes Institute, Stuttgart, DE; Museo de las Artes, Guadalajara, MX; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Newark Museum; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, among others. Amos’s prints were recently included in the British Museum’s 2017 American Dream exhibition, and her paintings were included in Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power and the Brooklyn Museum’s We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85. In 2016, Amos received Georgia Museum of Art’s Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson award and was honored by the Studio Museum in Harlem as an Icon and Trailblazer, along with Faith Ringgold and Lorraine O’Grady. In 2018, Amos will be included in the upcoming National Portrait Gallery, London exhibition Michael Jackson: On the Wall. In 2020, Amos will be the subject of a retrospective at Georgia Museum of Art at Georgia University in Athens. Amos still lives and works in downtown Manhattan.