This is surely Amalia Amaki's hour.
Two current Atlanta exhibitions feature her work. A mid-career retrospective called Amalia Amaki: Boxes, Buttons and the Blues, which originated at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., last summer, is on display at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. A smaller show, In a Red Knowing, also is on view at Sandler Hudson Gallery.
An Atlanta native, Amaki is an artist of remarkable complexity who bridges the gap between the worlds of high and popular art. As a graduate of Emory University's Institute of Liberal Arts, Amaki is well-schooled in art history. But she says her work often borrows its strategy from Marcel Duchamp, who began a continuing debate on "what is art?" by placing a urinal on display and calling it art.
Amaki says her art-making impulses are similarly conceptual. She takes commonplace materials such as vintage postcards, found photographs, fabric and buttons and transforms them into sentiment-laden evocations of African-American identity and history.
Though Amaki works in media ranging from photography to assemblage, she is most often identified with the humble button. She uses buttons in deliberate, political ways to imbue her subjects with a sense of romance, adoration and homage. Her button-encrusted candy boxes and fans become shrines that ennoble an African-American experience that is often viewed narrowly as only degraded and debased.
Her goal is to make art accessible and unthreatening. Her materials invite audiences in rather than alienating them. The buttons, she says, get people talking, inspire memories and anecdotes, and speak directly to her audience in the same emotionally engaged process she knows as an artist.
B.A. Georgia State University, journalism and psychology; B.A. University of New Mexico, photography and art history; Ph.D. Emory University, 20th-century American art and culture.
Parents Mary Elizabeth, homemaker; and Norman Vance Peek, careers included catering and garden designer. Five sisters.
Assistant professor of art, art history and Black American studies at the University of Delaware; curator of the Paul R. Jones Collection.
High Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, National Museum for Women in the Arts.
Favorite lost Atlanta landmark:
Rich's department store downtown [This is the first place Amaki exhibited her work, at age 13, in the furniture department. A man said he would buy a whole furniture suite if he could also buy her artwork].
Early experience of racism:
As a child, Amaki and her sisters petitioned their father to see Li'l Abner at the Fox Theatre, but her father forbade his children to see a film in a segregated theater.
Food that most reminds you of home:
Thing about the South you miss most in Delaware:
Favorite recent film:
Is race the most important issue in America today?
I wish it wasn't.
You deal with the blues a lot in your work. Do you have a favorite singer?
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A stunt woman.
Person whose opinion means the most to you:
That's an easy one. I love Charlie Rose. I think he's brilliant. To have him say, "She should be on my show," that would really do it for me. You know whose opinion means a lot to me? My bishop. And it's funny because I don't mean that necessarily in a spiritual way. He is such a good friend, and he is such an honest friend. James Earl Swilley at Church in the Now, Conyers.
Quality you value most in a friend:
I think more than anything else, trust or loyalty.
Importance of family:
I really felt for most of the time that I was growing up, through no consequence of anything I had done, I just felt I had the best parents. It still amazes me, at the end of the day, my mother was always right.
Artists who inspired you the most:
Georgia O'Keeffe, Man Ray, Frida Kahlo, Hale Woodruff and Nancy Elizabeth Prophet.
American you most admire:
Martin Luther King Jr., Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter is a wonderful example of how we can be of service to others as average human beings and in the normal course of our lives.
You've been making art for more than 30 years. What changes have you seen?
Greater opportunity for exposure because of technology, and more active discussion and collecting of art.
These portraits are everything. Nice light!
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