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A Signature Style

University of Delaware’s Dr. Amalia Amaki turns everyday items into fine art

By Robin V. Smiles

At first glance, much of Dr. Amalia Amaki’s art work on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts appears to be a simple assortment of pretty little things: heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and truffles wrapped in gold foil; bedazzled jewelry boxes and ornate handheld fans framing vintage family photos. A closer look, however, reveals that what is on display is not really what it seems. The rich, dark chocolates are actually buttons; the gems decorating the boxes and handheld fans are not precious stones, but common beads and buttons as well. And an even closer look reveals that “sweet” and/or “pretty” is not the only message Amaki is sending, particularly when you realize that the antique photos are not of the artist’s family, but random photos of everyday African-Americans found in flea markets and the like. Such anonymity prompts one to wonder about the identity of the mostly unfamiliar faces and just how bittersweet their lives might have been.
Yet, turning everyday items into fine art is Amaki’s signature style.

“I love taking the unexpected object and redefining it in the context of

art — like a button, a fan, a faded photograph,” says Amaki in an interview printed in the exhibit’s catalogue. “If there is one thing that has remained constant in my approach to my art over the past 20 years, it is my desire to tear down boundaries or sort of blur boundaries between so-called craft and so-called high art.”

That desire is well represented in the more than 70 pieces that comprise the exhibition “Amalia Amaki: Boxes, Buttons and the Blues” on display at the Washington, D.C., museum. It is the first major museum exhibition and catalogue of Amaki’s work. As a mid-career survey, the exhibition focuses on the period from 1993 to 2005. Along with the button-encrusted items described above, the exhibition includes a number of Amaki’s mixed-media quilts and manipulated photographs, all of which encourage the onlooker to delve beyond first appearances and think about the intricacies of African-American life and culture.

Take for instance the artist’s quilt series titled “Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue.” The richly textured quilts are embossed with cyanotypes or blue-hued images of famous female blues singers contrasted with the colors of the American flag, which calls into question the nation’s perception of African-American women and their relationship to popular culture. Or, consider her series of jewel-adorned handheld fans in honor of the Buffalo Soldiers, which exalts an often misrepresented and overlooked piece of American history. And then there are her most recent works: a collection of enlarged and

manipulated photographs simply titled “Blue Lady,” “Brown Lady,” “Purple Lady” and “Blue Gold Lady,” which challenge racial identity and traditional representations of beauty and glamour.

“The more you explore her work, the more complex it is,” says Dr. Judy Larson, director of the museum. “You can enjoy it visually first; then you begin to look at all the meanings.”

In that familiar way of art imitating life, Amaki’s own story is just as multi-layered as her works. Although this is her first major exhibition to garner national attention, she is no stranger in the world of African-American art. In one of her many roles, Amaki, 56, is curator of the Paul R. Jones Collection, one of the largest collections of African-American art housed at a public U.S. institution. Jones made headlines in 2001 when he donated his works to the University of Delaware. While some questioned Jones’ decision not to give the works to a historically Black college or university, Amaki was in full support of the decision. “Having known Mr. Jones and worked with the collection for a number of years. I know that his decision was not an overnight one, but a long time coming,” said Amaki soon after the announcement. (See Black Issues, March 29, 2001).

Part of Jones’ agreement with the University of Delaware required the university to partner with HBCUs, making sure that their students benefited from his collection and Delaware’s extensive resources. Amaki

was the key to that collaboration. An assistant professor at Spelman College at the time, she was hired by the University of Delaware to catalog the collection, teach classes, mentor students and to facilitate the partnership between the two schools. Today, Amaki is an assistant professor of art, art history and Black American studies at the University of Delaware. Last December, the university celebrated the inaugural exhibition of the Paul R. Jones Collection. (See Black Issues, Dec. 2, 2004). And this fall, the fulfillment of the partnership will be reached when the collection travels to the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.

It is the Spelman connection that led to Amaki’s own exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Dr. Andrea Barnwell, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, approached the Washington museum’s staff three years ago with the idea of collaborating on a project, particularly since both institutions share a similar goal of emphasizing works by and about women. According to Barnwell, the museum’s officials were excited about the idea, and after thinking about their mutual goals decided they that wanted to focus on an Atlanta-based artist, someone mid-career and someone who had never been shown in Washington on a large scale. Amaki was a perfect fit.
Barnwell, who is the curator of “Boxes, Buttons and the Blues,” says she began about two years ago narrowing the checklist of items to obtain for the exhibition and contacting potential lenders. But Barnwell’s relationship with Amaki began several years earlier, as a first-year

student in Amaki’s survey of African-American art class at Spelman.

“She wanted her students to understand the value of African-American art and culture. And she didn’t want students to think this was an easy “A,” just some pretty pictures. She wanted them to understand that creative and visual culture is the lifeblood of African-American history.”  
The most impressive thing Barnwell remembers about Amaki, however, was that “she did it all. She is an art historian, scholar, curator, critic and professor,” Barnwell says. “How she makes time in the day to make art still astounds me.” Not to mention, Barnwell adds, that she is “so extraordinary good at everything she does.”

In part, the project has given Barnwell the chance to show her gratitude to her former professor. As part of the partnership between Spelman’s museum and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the exhibition will travel to Atlanta in January and will be on display until May 2006 as the university celebrates its 125th anniversary.

Larson, who first met Amaki as a fellow graduate student at Emory University’s Institute of the Liberal Arts, also has her share of fond memories of working with Amaki. But her involvement with the current exhibition is entirely coincidental, she says. When Larson was named director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts more than two years ago, the exhibition was already scheduled. While overlooking the museum’s exhibition schedule, she was surprised to see her former classmate’s name.

Reconnecting with the artist has been a delight, Larson says. She particularly enjoyed watching Amaki interact with a group of teenage girls from the Washington area as part of the museum’s Role Model Workshop. Amaki conducted a week-long seminar with the teens, helping them create their own mixed-media works.

 “While her work deals with issues and concerns that are awkward such as gender, race and identity, she talks about them with such freshness, openness and ease,” Larson says. “The girls really connected to her energy.”

According to Larson, summer shows traditionally do not draw huge audiences, but Amaki’s has done quite well. Part of the draw has been the accompanying “Women in Blues and Jazz” exhibition, which includes approximately 45 photographs and short bios of more contemporary performers such as Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone and the blues women of the 1920s such as Sippie Wallace, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Mamie Smith.

The two exhibits enhance each other, with one offering the facts and actual representations of the history of women and the blues and the other providing one woman’s provocative and innovative interpretation of it.

“I love it when an exhibit interprets an exhibit,” Larson says.
Both Larson and Barnwell agree that much of the exhibition’s success can be attributed to the pioneering partnership between their two institutions. According to Larson, it has helped the National Museum of Women in the Arts reach the large African-American audience in the Washington area, many of whom are visiting the museum for the first time.

“Amalia Amaki: Boxes, Buttons and the Blues” is on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington  until Sept. 25, and at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta from Jan. 26 to May 13, 2006. For more information visit <>.

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