Billie Holiday is blue. You can tell just by looking. Artist Amalia Amaki cyanotyped a photo of the singer in that plaintive hue on a cotton quilt canvas nine times over, so the whole tableau recalls Andy Warhol's colorcentric pictorial of Marilyn Monroe. But Billie is blue. You can see it in her eyes, as the faint bars of a superimposed Confederate flag cross out her face.
Or is she blue because her legacy is constantly colored by her substance abuse and depression? Hard to say -- an image never has one definition for Amaki, whose "Boxes, Buttons and the Blues" opened yesterday at the National Museum of Women in the Arts as part of a "Women & Blues" project. The exhibition blends photography, found objects and the images of great female jazz vocalists into a statement on race, conformity and the transcendence of both.
"There is something about their honesty," Amaki says of these performers, speaking with a poise and honey-dipped voice that might warrant a parallel career in jazz singing. "When you think about them as a group, there is a particular honesty about how they express themselves. They really weren't ashamed of conveying in a way that was very natural or true to their experiences."
Amaki's varied works -- only a portion involve jazz singers -- were selected after the museum's advisory board consulted Spelman College in Atlanta for ideas to round out "Women & Blues," which also includes a photography exhibit of jazz vocalists and a blues concert series. The board chose Amaki, 56, who once worked as an instructor at Spelman. When NMWA Director Judy Larson was hired three years ago, the project was forming; she saw Amaki's name and recognized it from Emory University, where both worked on their PhDs at the same time.
"It was one of those magical moments when you think, 'This was meant to come together,' " Larson says. "We hope to tour it nationally."
"Boxes, Buttons and the Blues" presents many innocuous symbols of domesticity: jewel-encrusted purses and fans, quilts patched with photos -- even open boxes of chocolate. Delicious-looking chocolate. (Don't even think it -- a sensor beeps if you reach out to sample a truffle, which are made of buttons anyway.)
"The candy boxes are really a way I can talk about how some things are not the way they seem," Amaki says. "[With] a lot of the candy, even the titles like 'Dark Chocolate,' I am alluding to skin color and things like that. But it's not just a kind of racial reference. It's also talking about richness."
Amaki grew up in Atlanta, the fourth of six daughters to a mother who clung to tradition and a father who adored music. Her father, a caterer who moonlighted as a musician, once made a Billie Holiday costume for Amaki to wear on Halloween. It was his penchant for crafts and music that first inspired her work. She went to art school at the University of New Mexico and did her doctoral work in 20th-century American art and culture at Emory. She is now the curator of the Paul R. Jones Collection of African American Art and assistant professor in art, art history and black American studies at the University of Delaware.
"Boxes, Buttons and the Blues" is an assemblage of Amaki's work over the past 10 years, and includes a coconut cake made of wax and old postcards blown up to poster size and decorated with jewels and buttons. Most pieces are subtle commentaries on our image-obsessed culture, on how things are not always what they appear to be. One whole room of the exhibition is devoted to photos of African American women's faces, which Amaki cropped to exclude their hair and tinted to play with color. Another is devoted to late 19th-century postcards of black children forced to perform in the Moulin Rouge, a sobering subject that Amaki teases and tempers by adding jewels, buttons, photos and fabric.
The ironic nature of the exhibition is best represented by the jazz singer cyanotypes (one of the first kinds of photographic printing), particularly the Billie Holiday piece, which is part of the quilted series "Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue." The work was inspired by the debates in the early 1990s over whether Georgia should retain the Confederate emblem on its state flag. This controversy over an image's power and meaning, as well as the idea of judging some artists separate from their art, collide in Amaki's quilts.
"How can you respect this art when you don't respect the people who make it?" she says, waving her hand in front of a quilt. "There's something fundamentally wrong with that. And that's very much what it's alluding to. I was very angry with the idea that something could be projected as a sort of icon for the state, but then you're going to exclude almost 30 percent of the people who make up the population of that state."
And throughout the exhibition, this sharp criticism is conveyed through the gentle and soulful forms of jazz singers, who serve as emblems of empowerment and tradition.
"I knew what these women sounded like before I ever saw a photograph of them," she says as a recording of Ethel Waters wafts in from the adjacent exhibition. "I just think it's something that's so uniquely out of the American experience. I think that's why everybody responds to it."
Boxes, Buttons and the Blues, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, through Sept. 25. Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m. $8 adults, $6 students and visitors 60 and older, free for NMWA members and those 18 and younger. There is free admission, and a concert series runs every Friday through July 15. Call 202-783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org.