Emma Amos spent her career exploring the figure, as illustrated in work which spans painting, printmaking, collage, and textile production. She was the only woman and youngest person to be invited to join Spiral, a New York-based collective of African American artists who were interested in the relationship between art and activism, especially the role of black artists in modern society. Although Spiral was active for a relatively brief time (1963 through the early 1970s), its members—including Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Felrath Hines, Norman Lewis, Merton Simpson, and Hale Woodruff, among others— engaged in experimental abstraction and held vigorous group discussions surrounding the importance of the figure. The alliance’s first and only exhibition of member works, First Group Showing: Works in Black and White, was mounted in 1965. The presentation was significant for its monochromatic use of black, grey, and white, tones meant to underscore national racial tensions. Beyond her affiliation with Spiral and throughout her oeuvre, Amos insisted that her goal was to “dislodge, question, and tweak prejudices, rules, and notions relating to art and who makes it, poses for it, shows it and buys it. . . . I also want people to learn to feel my distaste for the notion that there is ‘art’ and ‘black art.’ Yes, race, sex, class, and power privileges exist in the world of art.”

Born in segregated Atlanta, Georgia, Amos was described as a child prodigy. Although her parents had hoped she might study with former Atlanta University professor Hale Woodruff, the famous painter did not accept such young private pupils. Serendipitously, it was Woodruff who later extended the invitation to Amos to join Spiral. At the age of sixteen, Amos left Atlanta for Antioch College in Ohio, where through a study abroad program she enrolled in painting and etching classes at the Central School of Art and Design in London. In 1959, twenty-two-year-old Amos relocated again, this time to New York City, where one of her first jobs was teaching at the progressive Dalton School. Her tenure there ignited a love for teaching that has endured through Amos’s career. Around this time, Amos also began to work as a weaver and designer for Dorothy Liebes. This was perhaps the most significant turning point in her career, kindling a love for fabric that is evident in the artist’s works, which often have fabric borders of batik, Dutch wax print, and African kente and kanga cloth. The integration of African textiles is Amos’s tribute to the continent and to the women who create those materials. It was during this period that Amos also worked in the New York printmaking studios of Leo Calapai and Robert Blackburn.

After participating in Spiral’s 1965 group exhibition and earning her master of art education degree from New York University in 1966, Amos found herself being rejected for both gallery representation and teaching positions in New York City. In the 1970s, she taught textile design at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art. She also produced and co-hosted an instructional crafts program entitled Show of Hands which aired on Boston’s public television station between 1977 and 1979. A year later, Amos became a professor at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University and would eventually become chair of visual arts department before her retirement in 2008.

Amos’s exploration of printmaking and textiles resulted in figurative imagery rendered on a large scale. Whatever the medium, her works have a dynamic, graphic quality that enliven the artist’s narrative purpose. Because she found abstraction to be “too easy, too arbitrary,” Amos primarily used the figure as a vehicle for expression, much to the chagrin of some of her Spiral comrades. Amos could be called a colorist for her use of color, both technically and thematically, yet was bothered by color as a means of determining ethnicity. She consistently sought to negotiate her traditional academic training with her positions on identity politics in her works, living as she had during an era of vast social change. Quite simply, Amos was unafraid to challenge the Western canon and white conventions to create complex, cogent, and wholly unique artistic statements.

And Your Ma is Good Looking is part of Amos’s celebrated Water Series, which she undertook in 1985. The self-confessed non-swimmer was drawn to the diver’s “floating, soaring, controlled descent, the kindness of water as a cushion.” Arching female forms symbolized strength, sexuality, and courage to the artist: “So many of us black women never enjoyed water because as children we feared unleashing the terrible mass of tangled hair that would break combs and bring tears to our eyes. These pictures represent freedom to me a definite letting go.”