- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2005

“Amalia Amaki: Boxes, Buttons and the Blues,”title is cq, per www.nmwa.org mixed-media-object exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, reflects what exhibit curator Andrea Barnwell calls a “bittersweet” approach to African American life — albeit one emphasizing the “sweet.”

In this thought-provoking “midcareer retrospective,” which the museum organized jointly with the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Miss Amaki, 56, tells stories of her life and the lives of other black Americans through ordinary buttons, faux gems, cotton materials and dance photos. For example, the young Miss Amaki’s summer churchgoing in hot Atlanta inspired her signature, button-encrusted “fans.” . Her mother’s quilting and father’s blues music led to her well-known “blues women quilts.”

In a series of visual puns, Miss Amaki plays with viewers’ perceptions of what’s real and what’s imaginary. In the first gallery, for example, what initially appear to be succulent Belgian chocolates filling heart-shaped candy boxes turn out, on closer inspection, to be buttons.

Spelman College’s Miss Barnwell presents Miss Amaki’s intriguing work chronologically in three thematic sections. The first, “Sweets for the Sweet,” shows ornately decorated boxes offaux desserts and chocolates that tempt viewers who don’t recognize they’re only buttons and glitter. Offering a more serious contrast to the good times evoked by the sweets are photos of black men and women scavenged from flea markets. The artist honors these anonymous people by carefully placing them in her framed boxes.

The second section, “Wild Women Don’t Wear No Blues,” centers on Miss Amaki’s cyanotype quilts and jewel-like encrusted fans. She uses the cyanotype printing process, one that depends on developing images with sunlight, to evoke legendary singers Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and others. (“Women in Blues and Jazz,” a complementary exhibition of 42 photos of female blues and jazz singers, is running concurrently at the museum.) The fans recall the hand-held ones the artist saw as a child and which she believes reflect the power of prayer.

The third section, “Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine,” concentrates on the photography she considers her first love. Among her photographs are vintage postcards of black children dancing the cakewalk in outlandish poses. She digitally enlarged and hand painted them to emphasize their considerable charm. Her current series of oversized altered photos of women is less attractive.

Miss Amaki’s interest in art began when her mother encouraged her to collect buttons and then sold her daughter’s button-decorated art. Miss Amaki went on to not only study art but to become a scholar, curator and art historian, as well. She is currently the University of Delaware’s Paul R. Jones Collection curator and assistant professor of art, art history, and Black American Studies.

Certain images will stay in visitors’ memories. In “Number One Fan #2,” for example, Miss Amaki surrounded an image of Billie Holiday’s head with richly decorated pearl- and gilt-edged buttons. She encrusted glistening buttons to simulate pearls and gems in “Family Jewels.” She embedded round gold buttons in the top of the heart-shaped “Duet (Anniversary Fan)” chocolate box. The artist set every available inch of “Tzedakah Box” with faux pearl and gold-covered buttons.

Other memorable works include her “Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue #9 (Bessie Remembered),” which repeats again and again a photograph of the “Empress of the Blues” across its quilted surface. Another in this series, “Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue #17” is a more subtle comment on black slave experiences. The artist shows almost unbelievable vestiges of harsh branding through the rusted marks of the branding irons.

Surprisingly, this is Miss Amaki’s first major museum retrospective. That this talented and innovative artist hasn’t received more notice is indefensible. Her shows have mainly centered in the South, and an illuminating exhibit like this one is long overdue in the District. Hopefully, there’ll be more.

WHAT: “Amalia Amaki: Boxes, Buttons and the Blues”

WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon through 5 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 25

TICKETS: $8 adults, $6 students and visitors 60 and over, free for members and those 18 and under.

PHONE: w.nmwa.orggo box info is cq

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