Homage to Creative Genius

Amaki's artistic vision offers soul-stirring insight into the nuances of culture and community.

By Michelle Valigursky

Creativity is complex, and the true artist often navigates through ideas and inspiration to explore new mediums and techniques. Amalia Amaki 92G 94PhD is one such artist whose evocative and visually stunning work has earned global acclaim. Amaki is passionate about our shared roots in community and friendship, and her newest book, Homage, pays tribute to a multi-faceted life.

Four years in the making, “Homage has been a healing balm for me,” she reveals. This deeply personal work will be released as a limited edition signed and numbered artist’s book. Fifty-six poems and artworks presented in the upcoming book were shown in a special exhibition at Palm Beach State College (West Palm Beach) in January-February this year. Homage showcases poems that are conversations with people who have passed but that, at critical points “saved” Amaki’s life. “These are poems and images of gratitude and affection,” she explains.

Amaki’s process of creation, both in art and in poetry, is revelatory. “I grew up in a very creative environment,” she writes in Boxes, Buttons, and the Blues, her stunning book that shares images of her magical candy box creations and portraiture. Her first foray into still life came at 13. “I remember one day fooling around with yarn and burlap. I took one of my father’s burlap bags and cut it up, and then I took some of my mother’s yarn, and I created a still life.” She soon created a second one, and the art pieces “were transformed when the decorator at Rich’s [Department Store] framed them.” She recalls how seeing her work framed with a furniture display gave her newfound perspective. “The framing gave me the message that this wasn’t just some crafty thing I had done with yarn. It was art.” A customer loved the display so much he bought the furniture and the art. “That was my first really big sell. When you are supported early and rewarded with money for your efforts, you are given an incentive to continue working.”

From that point forward, Amaki’s life was dedicated to expression. Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) is privileged to house Amaki’s papers, which were donated in 2011 along with those of other African American artists. Individuals may search Amaki’s specific works via a tool called finding aids.

Poetry, Collage, Books, and Film

When I’m troubled, I usually run to the poets." Crafting poems since the 1980s, Amaki turns to writing poetry in times of need. “You always think you will have more time with a friend than you really do, but losses can be sudden and devastating. Poetry is my way to continuing to share my thoughts with those people who were very important in my life.”

Amaki’s artistic work is extensive and diverse. “I collect vintage postcards and photographs, and I love to incorporate them into my work,” she says. “They each tell such a story.” She is a remarkable quilter and mixed media collage artist with a passion for buttons and vintage ephemera. The resulting works are hauntingly beautiful and share comprehensive understanding of culture and community. Her books depict her love for historical detail and imagery and capture moments in time. Most recently, she delved into archival and field research to complete Images of America: Tuskegee, written with voting rights matriarch Amelia Boynton-Robinson and released in October 2013. 

Filmmaking is on Amaki’s artistic agenda, and she has a docudrama in the works. Though details are being kept under wraps, she admits it fulfills a longtime dream.  “The project blends my interest in history, the arts, travel, and patterns of human nature together in a narrative format that I love - film.” Not surprisingly, Amaki is also writing a novel with deep Southern roots about one woman’s emotional 60-year journey from her birthplace to destinations beyond and back home again.

In addition to collecting moments of inspiration, Amaki is also a collector of baubles and bits, much of which finds its way into her finished pieces. Her philosophy is straightforward. “I work with whatever is handy, and that means I often use the things that I love to collect,” she says. A self-professed night owl who often works through the night as creativity strikes, at the moment she works between London and Atlanta, London being a place where she can “gather herself, sift through ideas, and converse with loved ones who are the most candid sounding boards imaginable.” Contemplating establishing a studio home in Atlanta, she assures, “It will be very special.”

Love and Loss

Pain, they say, often fuels creative fires. Amaki understands this harsh truth. In six months in 2009-2010, she endured four successive losses of dear friends and mentors that immeasurably changed her life. “It was as if I were the table, and all the legs of that table that had been supporting me were knocked out at once. I was on the floor, and I had to find a way to get up.”

A personal friend to music icon Michael Jackson, she was devastated when “Mike” passed in 2009. “He protected me as he did most of his friends that weren’t in the
public eye
. I always treated him like a regular person and he greatly appreciated that. I admired his talent and loved his spirit from the beginning. I respected most that he carved out a little corner of the world that was purely his,” she recalls. Mike, in many ways, became her muse and continues to inspire her artistic work.

At that same time, Amaki lost her best friend and anchor, Graham, who died quite suddenly. “He’d been like a brother to me for 30 years. And then he was gone.”

Life had suddenly become more challenging, and when Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes, ‘Tis, and Teacher Man) passed away, Amaki didn’t quite know what to do. The two met in St. Louis in 2001 and their friendship continued while she was professor and curator at University of Delaware and made routine trips to New York. “He was like a father to me, imparting wisdom and humor when it was needed most. He possessed that same gentleness that Mike did, and I was so blessed to know two men who were capable of being gentle and kind to such an extent without compromising their maleness.”

Deeply saddened by these losses, Amaki was stunned to also lose African American art collector Paul Jones, for whom she had documented his collection in A Century of African American Art: The Paul R. Jones Collection while serving as curator of the collection at University of Delaware. 

“My whole world changed,” she remembers. “I needed to get away, to be alone, and regroup.” Amaki decided to take a hiatus from teaching, and went to London, where she rediscovered her artistic passion while nurturing her spirit in a guest cottage at a friend’s home in Hampstead. “It became my studio and my place to heal.”

Her artistic outlook reveals her passion for exploration. “Art is my staple in life. It’s the source of my rejuvenation, my redemption, my restoration … art is what was I was born to do.

Editor’s Note:  Amalia K. Amaki is an artist, art historian, curator, poet, writer and film critic.  After over twenty-five years of multi-tasking as a professor of art history and visual studies, curator of the Paul R. Jones Collection (at the University of Delaware, then the University of Alabama), and coordinator of arts programs while also writing art and film reviews and exhibiting her own art, Amaki left the academy in 2012 to focus on creative interests. The most recent project is her limited edition artist book Homage: Poems and Images of Gratitude and Affection with Marquand Books to be launched this spring.

Images of America: Tuskegee, written with voting rights matriarch Amelia Boynton-Robinson, was released in October 2013.  Images of America: Tuscaloosa came out in 2012 and is in its third printing at Arcadia Publishing.  Amaki was also curator of “Southern Connections: Bearden in Atlanta”, an exhibition supplementing “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey” featured at the Carlos Museum January 14, 2013 – March 9, 2014.

Read a previous interview in Emory Magazine with Amaki.

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Michelle Valigursky