I am going to start this post about Emma Amos in the middle. Last October, I saw the retrospective exhibit, Emma Amos: Color Odyssey, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We are all familiar with Paul Gauguin’s topless portraits of Tahitian women. Growing up, I was given to understand that those women walked around that way all the time. Only it wasn’t true. By the time Gauguin got to Tahiti in 1891, “[i]t had been thoroughly Christianized and colonized. The women were not walking around half-naked. … They tended to be wearing … Christian missionary gowns.”
That made Amos’ painting, Tightrope, pictured below, really resonate with me. It’s is Amos’s depiction of the difficult balance she had to maintain as a Black woman, artist, wife, and mother. The t-shirt she holds is a reference to Gaughan’s painting of his 13-year-old Tahitian wife. For more information on Tightrope, and her other paintings, I recommend Arianna Richetti’s excellent article, Emma Amos: The Story of the Postmodernist African-American Artist.
The vulnerability Amos displays in tightrope brought to mind a passage from a novel by Lorene Carey that I read a few years ago. The protagonist of The Price of a Child is not an artist, but other aspects of her life are uncomfortably similar.
"Mercer pulled her arm tighter over Mattie's shoulders. She thought of Pryor's long fingers and how she hated him to touch her breasts. Why her breasts? They had always been hard, just getting past that part. Especially when she was pregnant or, worse yet, nursing. She could wall off from the waist down and not make herself mind so much. Maybe her breasts were too close to her head. She couldn't wall off from the neck down which is what she tried to do." Lorene Carey, The Price of a Child: A Novel, 1995.
How a Black female artist must present herself to be recognized as a painter working. Note that the suit is a pseudo transformation of Amos into a white man. Beading Yoda, who knew Amos, told me that she was a member of the Guerrilla Girls.
Amos often used fabric to frame her work, as she did in the above painting which contains a bathing scene, a female figure with multi-colored skin tones and a black male bather that evokes classical Greek imagery. Amos said, “Every time I think about color, it’s a political statement.”
Before you pass this off as derivative of Jasper Johns, take a closer look. Amos has depicted an American flag backed by a Confederate flag. There’s also fabric, and photographs of children playing and Malcolm X.
Flying Circus is a triptych that is part of Amos’s Falling Series, that is partly a commentary on Ronald Reagan’s social spending cuts in the 1980’s. Amos saw falling through space as both frightening and liberating.