American Girl, an art form that has reportedly been around for 500 years, is a portrait of a woman with black ink in her hair, body and face, set against some sort of domestic interior in the background.
The portrait was made in 1974 by Emma Amos during a period of social protests for LGBT rights, Native American rights, women’s liberation and Black power in the American society.
As people demanded to be recognized, artists at the time gave their full support to these protests not by marching and writing but via visual arts.
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Many of them produced work that was blatantly political or radical, from sculpture to prints and posters, and Amos was one of them.
Though her American Girl work is believed to be “quieter and more personal work than many of its time,” Amos would later begin to make more overtly political work.
Born in 1938 during the civil rights and other social movements, Amos grew up in segregated Atlanta, before heading to New York in the 1960s, where a group of prominent black artists formed a collective called Spiral, to find out the best ways their work could support racial justice.
Amos was invited to join them, as the group’s youngest member, and only woman.
She subsequently had difficulties looking for a job since she was black and almost quit painting after she realized that most galleries hardly exhibited paintings of black people.
But by 1974, Amos had produced American Girl and had already begun breaking away from the Spiral group, casting doubts over whether truly the group had taken her seriously and were ready to open the door of opportunity to her.
Amos later joined feminist art collective Heresies, and subsequently became one of the anonymous art-world activists the Guerrilla Girls.
American Girl is part of a portfolio called “Impressions: Our World, Vol. 1,” which contains prints by seven black artists, both men and women, and produced at the Printmaking Workshop, run by the African-American artist Robert Blackburn.
These black artists created their own project to showcase their works which were often rejected by museums.
According to accounts, for the group’s exhibition in the 1960s, all the prints in the portfolio are in black and white, largely due to its racial connotation.
Amos, portraying the figure of a black woman as a form of social protest, was seen as rather daring.
For someone interested in the beauty of the black body, she even went further by depicting the American Girl in the nude.
The woman also had black ink in her hair, body and face which was also a choice Amos made as a form of “political statement.”
Amos was quoted by smithsonianmag.com: “we’re always talking about colour, but colours are also skin colours, and the term ‘colored’ itself—it all means something else to me. You have to choose, as a black artist, what colour to make your figures. . . butterscotch, brown or really black.”
American Girl, which further shows vertical stripes and white dots on a dark background signifying the American flag, has been described by Kelli Morgan, curatorial fellow at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as “a representation of a black woman as the foundation of American society.”
On the surface, Amos’s work may seem normal or personal, but during the period in which it was made, there is no way one would look at it without finding in it a message.