Emma Amos and the Profound Role of Memory in Her Paintings

Emma Amos, “Targets” (1992) (© Emma Amos; Courtesy of the estate of the artist and RYAN LEE
Gallery, New York)

Maps define the spatial relationships between places and objects. They guide our journeys and direct our course. They chart landmarks as we center ourselves, plotting our routes and destinations, and without them we would be lost and directionless. Yet for those suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, accessing memory becomes a devastating challenge as the cognitive maps of the brain become compromised. However, for some sufferers, photographic images can become visual catalysts to rediscovering lost memories.

Examining the work of the late artist Emma Amos (March 1937 – May, 2020) through her use of family photographs reveals the important role that memory plays in her work. When Amos passed away in May due to complications related to Alzheimer’s, her daughter India shared a thread of memories about her mother on Twitter, including stories about her practice, influences, and her wicked sense of humor. Emma Amos also meticulously catalogued her family photos and inherited the image catalogue of George Shivery, a photographer who documented Black life in the American South in the 1930s and 1940s. Many of these vintage photographs would find their way into the artist’s work in surprising ways.

Emma Amos, “Will You Forget Me” (1991) (© Emma Amos; Courtesy of the estate of the artist and RYAN LEE
Gallery, New York)

In the self portrait “Will You Forget Me?” (1991), Amos features herself falling through the sky as she clings onto a large framed picture of her mother above her head. The isolated image was cropped from a group photo of a tea party that was taken when her mother was 16 years old. As Amos descends in the painting, her gaze is not one of shock or fear, it’s resolute and it’s directed squarely at the viewer. As much as the piece imparts  a descent to doom, the subject’s  gaze pulls the viewer into the painting and alternatively asks an important question: Who will you remember? 

Amos’s use of photographic preservation suggests its important function as a mnemonic device, and revisiting her work in the wake of her recent passing is a presage into her own memory loss. In a 1995 interview with writer bell hooks for the book Art on My Mind, Amos posits that photography can be used to trigger and manipulate memory. As the artist explained to hooks, “A photograph can tell you that you were standing on the beach with your mother and brother in 1947. Painting gives the artist a chance to manipulate the background, charge up the colors, add texture. Combining photographs with painting is making me use a sense that I don’t even quite know how to articulate. It’s manipulating memory that’s real, because it’s painted, it’s photographed.” 

Emma Amos With “Head First” in 2006 (photo by Becket Logan, courtesy RYAN LEE)

Combining that process of manipulation with the metaphorical sensation of falling also suggests that our memory’s malleability is influenced by time. “There’s nothing that is stationary” Amos says, “This is a thing about flux.” This theme also influences how paintings are interpreted. By depicting figures in movement, the context becomes dynamic which opens up the work to evolve over time. 

In the 1980s Amos began to critically examine the evolution of her career. Her 1981 self-portrait titled “Preparing for a Face Lift” is a witty exploration of the New York art world rendered through the self-effacing humor of a plastic surgeon’s pen. Underneath this comical veil, Amos maps her life as a young woman who grew up exposed to Black intelligentsia in Georgia, studied in London, and later moved to New York to find herself quickly marginalized as a Black woman from the South. As the youngest and only female member of New York’s Spiral Collective, Amos was often made to feel othered by her male peers and their reductive perceptions of her age and gender.  

Emma Amos, “Women and Children First, Howardena’s Portrait” (1990) (© Emma Amos; Courtesy
of the estate of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York)

The piece accompanied an essay written by Amos in the feminist periodical Heresies in 1982. The essay, titled “Some Do’s and Don’ts for Black Women Artists,” is a satirical yet salient critique of New York’s artistic ecosystem, expressed with the aplomb of a veteran of the system: “Don’t complain about being a black woman artist in the ‘80s. Many people, both black and white, think you were fashioned to fit the slot in a turnstyle–a mere token baby.” 

These revelations influenced her work significantly, prompting her to pivot away from the expectations of her as a Black woman artist. At this point she had already shifted away from her most well known colorful, figurative work and combined painting, photography, and self-made textiles into statements on the power of Blackness, women, and agency. 

One of her former studio assistants, jc lenochan, tells me, “She was emphatic on protecting the black body and cultural preservation of blackness as a history and movement for equity. She embraced the next generation of women in the arts and longed for their success.”

Emma Amos at the Art Salon Show, 1979 (courtesy RYAN LEE Gallery)

For Amos and many Black women artists creating work between the 1960s and 1980s, the roadmap to success, as defined through hegemonic aesthetics, was elusive. “She had a huge concern for where her work should be and where it was prior to her illness,” continues lenochan via email, “often sharing disappointment that she had all these accomplishments, but what really mattered to her was the recognition in major museum collections, over studio inventory.”

Lenochan also noted the collaboration between curators and her current gallery, RYAN LEE, was an important catalyst to increased scholarship of her work that was highlighted in shows like Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power and We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85. In addition to solo shows from RYAN LEE Gallery, in 2021 the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia will also host a career retrospective of Amos that spans 60 years of her career. 

Perhaps the strongest map that Amos left for us was a series of 48 watercolor portraits of close friends and artistic collaborators titled “The Gift” (1990-1994). This collection  of work was originally conceived as a gift of the artist’s close women friends to her daughter India. The portraits are tributes to the powerful women that sustained Black creativity in the 1970s and 1980s through collectives like “Where We At” and the highly influential Just Above Midtown Gallery (JAM), founded by Linda Goode Bryant. 

“The Gift” is an important affirmation of strength and an invocation of thankfulness for Black women as powerful pillars of support to the community.  

This gesture of gratitude is echoed in the last piece of advice that Amos gave to Black women artists in her Heresies essay: “DO be thankful and shout ‘Hallelujah!’ for: Dealers, agents, and pals who work for JAM. Lovers, husbands, children, patrons, and friends … The ‘do praise’ list goes on.”

For Amos, who died in May due to complications related to Alzheimer’s, photographic preservation was integral to her paintings, suggesting its important function as a mnemonic device.Read MoreArticles, Alzheimer’s, Emma Amos, memory, Ryan Lee GalleryHyperallergicRead More

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