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Amalia Amaki's Buttons & Boxes in "Women & Blues"


Artist Amalia Amaki finds her inspiration in bits of African-American social history, such as the lives of female blues singers, and in everyday objects, such as picture postcards, handmade quilts and, especially, buttons. Carolyn Weaver reports on a current show of her work in Washington, D.C.

The "Women & Blues" exhibit at Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts features the work of Amalia Amaki, a Georgia-born and raised artist who teaches now at the University of Delaware.

Her show begins with candy boxes containing what look like fancy chocolates---but the chocolates are buttons, and quite inedible. Buttons are a mainstay of Ms. Amaki's work.

"There's all this stuff I link with the buttons,” she said in a recent interview at the museum. “Especially used buttons, the idea of being touched by all these unknown hands---who knows how many hands touched a single button? At the same time, they're very beautiful, ornate, like jewels. They were at one time used as currency. So, there are all these sort of wonderful histories embodied in the buttons. But at the same time, they are a way that I can make very unusual but very textural color fields."

In a very different series of works, Ms. Amaki's blue-printed quilts evoke the history of African-Americans. The quilts are at once warm and melancholy, as curator Andrea Barnwell points out; burn marks from ironing evoke the branding irons of slavery.

Several are dedicated to female blues singers, and also celebrate the export of American music around the world: "When I travel overseas, I am still amazed at how powerful the transfer of American music is,” says Ms. Amaki. “Things like jazz, blues, even hip hop---there's this immediate understanding that it's something that evolved out of the African-American experience, but at the same time, other nations see it as purely America."

A number of the mixed-media objects on display were inspired by the colorful paper fans that women in Southern black churches used to cool themselves---printed with advertisements from local businesses on one side, and religious messages on the other. Smiling, Ms. Amaki recalls the incongruous paper fans of her youth: "I still can't get over, you know, "Jake’s Barbecue" on one side, and "He Lives" on the other."

Several large works are based on antique picture postcards of African-American child dancers who toured France in 19th century circuses. The elaborately-dressed children performed the cakewalk, a popular dance that had begun during slavery times as a parody of European dances favored by slave-owners.

Ms. Amaki owns several of the original antique cards featuring a girl of nine or ten who looks confidently out at the photographer. “I was just immediately drawn, when I saw these postcards, to the little girl,” Ms. Amaki says. “Who knows how many audiences she dazzled with her performances? Who knows where she went? I would love to know what she grew up to become. I would love to know that little girl as a woman."

Other digitally-manipulated, blown-up photographs play with the ideas of beauty and race in contemporary popular culture---especially images of African-American women. Of the faces she has tinted in a range of unlikely hues, Ms. Amaki says she hopes they’ll nudge viewers to see beyond stereotypes.

"What does happens when you take the expected complexion out of the image?” she asks. “What are the implications when a woman is purple or blue or gold, as opposed to any number of the skin tones that we're accustomed to seeing and responding to?"

Amalia Amaki's show, “Buttons, Boxes and the Blues,” runs through September 25 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which is the only museum that exists solely to show the work of women artists.

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