Image: Daughter of the Dust (detail), 2019, Bisa Butler.
In our latest issue, Issue 98: Together Lydia Caston profiles the American textile artist Bisa Butler. Here, we share an extract from the article: Weaving together narratives from the past and present, New Jersey born Butler patches together the often neglected histories of African American people, promising to expand conceptions of textiles and identity politics with new perspectives on themes such as protest, civil rights and slavery. Her textiles beautifully disrupt preconceived expectations of quilts as objects that provide comfort and warmth and unite empowerment with storytelling. In Butler’s words, ‘I am telling the story - this African American side - of the American life.’
Butler is renowned for her monumental and enchanting quilted portraits depicting black people. They are layered with historical meaning and showcase the artist’s painterly use of vivid colours and multiple textures. Her back catalogue of fabrics is wide, and she has incorporated every material from old flour sacks to fluorescent felt, vintage velvet to coarse denim and hand-me-downs from her own personal collection. As a child, Butler would watch her mother and grandmother sew and quickly picked up this skill when making dolls’ clothes with her sister. It was, however, her education that shaped her unique practice. Butler studied painting at Howard University and later completed a Master’s in Art Education at Montclair State University where she took a fibre art class. Her courses inspired her and she explored the work of artists Faith Ringgold and Romare Bearden, both known for their improvisational and collage approach to painting. As well as being a prolific artist, Butler worked as a Newark Public School art tutor for over a decade, teaching during the day, quilting at night and exhibiting her work in local community centres and churches. At Howard University, Butler was taught by Jeff Donaldson and other members of the AfriCOBRA arts collective, a Chicago-based group of black artists who developed their own aesthetic in order to empower black communities.
Image: Broom Jumpers (detail), quilted and appliquéd cotton, wool and chiffon, 2019 (detail). Bisa Butler. Image courtesy of Claire Oliver gallery.
Butler’s colourful and dynamic quilts are a call to action, each with a mission to emphasise and celebrate the role that black people have played in the making of American culture. This November, Butler’s work will be featured in the exhibition Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change at the Toledo Museum of Art. Her textiles will be brought into dialogue with historical pieces to consider how quilts have been used to voice opinions, raise awareness and enact social reform in the US. ‘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.’ Each quilt is unique and tells a different story of equality and hope that flows through the frays of the textile. Now more than ever does Bisa Butler’s work prompt a restructuring of sociocultural inequalities that bear down on African Americans and compel us to build on her legacy and engage with the conversations the quilts have sparked.
Full article available in Selvedge Issue 98: Together
Bisa Butler: Portraits, until 19 April 2021, Art Institute of ChicagoRadical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change, until 14 February 2020, Toledo Museum of Art