Image: Broom Jumpers, quilted and appliquéd cotton, wool and chiffon, 2019 (detail). Bisa Butler. Image courtesy of Claire Oliver gallery.
Bisa Butler is an American textile artist who celebrates the personal and historical narratives of Black life. She creates large scale quilted portraits using cotton including African wax prints, velvets, silk and wool textiles, and applique and embroidery. ‘Bisa Butler: Portraits’ - the first solo museum exhibition of the artist's work - is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago until the end of the week. It features 26 of her vivid and larger-than-life fabric portraits that capture African American identity and culture.
Image: To God and Truth, quilted and appliquéd cotton, wool and chiffon, 2019. Bisa Butler. Image courtesy of Claire Oliver gallery.
Talking about quilting and her use of textiles, Butler says: “I quilt because this was the technique that was taught to me at home. I could sew before I ever painted on a canvas. My grandmother and mother while not quilters, sewed garments almost every day. African Americans have been quilting since we were bought to this country and needed to keep warm. Enslaved people were not given large pieces of fabric and had to make do with the scraps of cloth that were left after clothing wore out. From these scraps the African American quilt aesthetic came into being. Some enslaved peoples were so talented that they were tasked for creating beautiful quilts that adorned their enslavers beds.”
Image: Southside Sunday Morning, cotton and silk, 2018. Bisa Butler. Image courtesy of Claire Oliver gallery.
“My own pieces are reminiscent of this tradition, but I use African fabrics from my father’s homeland of Ghana, batiks from Nigeria, and prints from South Africa. My subjects are adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestor. If these visages are to be recreated and seen for the first time in a century, I want them to have their African Ancestry back, I want them to take their place in American History. I want the viewer to see the subjects as I see them. I hope people view my work and see the expressions of joy, the vibrancy of colors and the quiet dignity of my portraits. All of my pieces are done in life scale to invite the viewer to engage in a dialogue—most figures look the viewers directly in their eyes. I am inviting a reimagining and a contemporary dialogue about age old issues, still problematic in our culture, through the comforting, embracing medium of the quilt. I am expressing what I believe is the equal value of all humans.”
Butler's quilted portrait of Wangar Maathai, an environmental and women’s rights activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was selected to be a Time Magazine cover for their special double issue honouring 100 women of the year in 2020.
For more information visit the Art Institute of Chicago website.
Follow @bisabutler on Instagram.