Bisa Butler is a contemporary artist known for her quilted portraits that celebrate and focus on Black life. She says she wants to “tell stories that have been forgotten over time.” A Howard University graduate, Bisa Butler, studied painting during her undergraduate and art education while obtaining her master’s degree from Montclair University. During a fiber art class, she says she fell in love with the art form. Her quilts build on a rich tradition rooted in the Black community. She calls herself a storyteller and says in her artist statement that her grandmother and mother taught her how to sew.
“African Americans have been quilting since we were brought 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…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”-Bisa Butler.
Bisa Butler: Portraits is currently on display at The Art Institute of Chicago through September 6. Bisa Butler: Portraits feature 22 quilts with themes focusing on family, community, and legacy. While Bisa Butler builds on the African American tradition of quilting, her techniques and process are innovative.
“The vibrancy and scale of Butler’s work really captivate viewers, and once they are pulled in, they experience an often startling realization regarding materiality; that is, they discover what they are looking at is fabric rather than paint. This surprise, paired with the arresting faces of her subjects, fuels even closer looking. The complementary layers of narrative and materials create an immersive, dazzling, and compelling aesthetic experience,” says Erica Warren, Associate Curator of Textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Inspired by photographs, Bisa Butler: Portraits tell the stories of the diaspora. The exhibit also features a curated playlist. Bisa Butler and her husband John, a professional DJ, chose to pair songs with her quilts. “John listened very intently as I explained what a particular piece felt like and meant to me. We then chose each song for its lyrics, tempo, singer’s intent, and general mood, matching the songs to my objectives for each piece to help strengthen the narrative component of the artwork…Music has a strong ability to communicate emotion, and John and I chose these songs to share our thoughts and feelings about my artwork and my emotional intent for creating them.”
Butler calls it “The Quilters’ Playlist.” From Mahalia Jackson, Muddy Waters, to Tupac, the playlist connects the music to the art. The powerful imagery of African American life, fabrics exploding with color, and attention to detail combined with the skilled artistry are brilliant and evoke pride. Bisa Butler: Portraits is her first solo museum exhibit. It is a must-see for everyone.
“In my work, I am telling the story— this African American side— of the American life. History is the story of men and women, but the narrative is controlled by those who hold the pen.”-Bisa Butler.
The exhibition Bisa Butler: Portraits runs through September 6 at the Art Institute of Chicago. Bisa Butler: Portraits, is available on Amazon and local stores around Chicago.
Danielle Sanders is a journalist and writer living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSanders20.