The art of buttons and blues


Known as "the button lady," Amalia Amaki scours flea markets for the raw materials of her art. She deploys thousands of buttons in the artful and even scrumptious retrospective of her work that opens today at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington.

Among the 73 works in this witty exhibition are more than a dozen boxes and trays of luscious chocolate candies made out of buttons and one dreamy mixed-media coconut cake. Her chocolates not only look edible, they're downright tempting.

"I started making these candy boxes and thinking about how they function so well as gifts that carry so much personal meaning," Amaki says, during a preview of the exhibition this week. "Most of those chocolates are deep ... and that is very much a metaphor for me for dark skin. ... smooth, creamy, luscious ... My mother used to say you are what you eat."

Amaki, who is African-American, has, in fact, included a piece called Dark Chocolate in her exhibition. It's an oval-shaped box with a frothy mix of pink and cream and white beads and buttons that frame a woman apparently in black face. Her box Original Treats seems to hold a couple packs of Oreo cookie. A heart-shaped box, Holiday Treats, has a picture of the singer Billie Holiday framed by the buttons on the cover.

Holiday's image pops up several times in Amaki's work. "I thought about the more tender side of her as a person and as a woman," she says, "and about her beauty and her love of things sweet and pleasurable."

The Too Sweet box is decorated with artist Man Ray's dada photograph Le Violon d'Ingres, which shows a nude woman with the f-holes of a violin printed on her back.

"If anyone's work influences me visually, more than anyone else it's Man Ray," Amaki says. Ray, of course, was an American who made his artistic life in France among the surrealists. "Putting a woman in the context of a cello, playing off the ideal figure in much the same way that you think of a great cellist being able to make perfect sound. All those wonderful associations."

In an interview in the show's catalog, she says other artists who influenced her include Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Georgia O'Keeffe, Joseph Cornell, Betty Hahn and Hale Woodruff.

Another art influence, Amaki says, is abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who will be the subject of one of her next works.

"I'm going to look at how 25 artists perceive her," she says - "their journey of trying to learn what she as a woman was really like."

Amaki, who is in her 50s, is an art historian, as well as an artist. She has been an assistant professor of art, art history and black American studies at the University of Delaware, at Newark, since 2000. She's curator of the university's Paul R. Jones Collection of African-American Art. She earned a bachelor's degree in photography and art history in 1980 at the University of New Mexico and a doctorate in 20th-century American art and culture from Emory University in Atlanta, her hometown.

In the women's museum show, Amaki has created a wonderful homage to O'Keeffe in the shape of a fan made from black buttons. Fans are another motif that frequently occur in Amaki's art - images borrowed from the pews of the churches of her youth. There are more than half a dozen fan images in the retrospective. O'Keeffe's hooded image appears on a vintage birthday card in the center of the fan.

"Georgia O'Keeffe was one of my mentors," she says. They met at O'Keeffe's New Mexico ranch in the late 1970s.

"This woman gave me the best advice," she says, "just shy of what my mother told me for 18 years. First, she flattered me and said, 'You know you remind me of myself when I was your age.' For Georgia O'Keeffe to say that was just wonderful. I think she was responding to some kind of pioneering spirit in me.

O'Keeffe's advice was that when people treat you badly, "Don't get mad, be successful. That's the best way to get even."

Amaki's work is paired with an exhibition of photographs, Women in Blues and Jazz, a remarkable assemblage of pictures of singers and musicians, from Mamie Smith to Ethel Waters to Anita O'Day to Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington.


What: Women & Blues: "Amalia Amaki: Boxes, Buttons and the Blues" and "Women in Blues and Jazz"

Where: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. N.W., Washington

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays; through Sept. 25

Admission: $8 adults; $6 students and those 60 and over; members and children under 18 free

Call: 202-783-5000 or visit

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