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Artist Feature: Bisa Butler

Artist Feature: Bisa Butler

Written by:
Wendy Bonham-Carter
Sep 05, 2023

Step into the vibrant world of Bisa Butler, where art and textiles intertwine to create captivating portraits that celebrate history, culture, and the power of artistic expression. Born in 1973, Butler’s work is a remarkable homage to African American quilting traditions and the stories they tell.

With an array of colorful and intricately patterned textiles, Butler brings to life a diverse range of subjects, from historical icons to everyday individuals captured in found photographs. Each piece is a testament to her deep connection to black history and her unwavering commitment to honoring the past through her art.

Hailing from New Jersey, Butler’s artistic journey was shaped by her studies at Howard University and her exposure to the vibrant aesthetics of the AfriCOBRA collective. A pivotal moment occurred when she created a quilt for her grandmother, forever cementing her path as a textile artist. With a background in teaching, including over a decade in the Newark Public School system, Butler’s influence extends beyond her art.

In her quilts, Butler masterfully weaves kente cloth and traditional African wax printed fabrics, infusing her figures with the essence of ancestral heritage. Bold jewel tones and intricate patterns replace conventional flesh tones, drawing viewers into a world where direct gazes challenge them to engage in the narratives she constructs.

Bisa Butler’s work pays homage to the rich history of African American quilting, from its origins in the resourcefulness of enslaved individuals to the artistic resilience of quilters in places like Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Join us as we delve into the artistry of Bisa Butler, where quilts stitch together the threads of heritage, history, and creativity.

 

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Bisa Butler

  1. 1973 

“African Americans have been quilting since we were brought to this country and needed to keep warm… From these scraps, the African American quilt aesthetic came into being….”

Bisa Butler’s colorful and brightly patterned portraits are a stunning testament to what is possible using textiles. Her subjects are diverse, ranging from notable historical figures to unknown figures in found photographs. Through her work, she celebrates and acknowledges black history, culture, and artistic lineage. 

Bisa Butler was born in New Jersey and studied at Howard University, a notable HBCU. While at Howard, she studied with the art collective AfriCOBRA, whose bright, poppy aesthetic and commitment to positive portrayals of everyday black Americans influenced her. After getting her Masters at Montclair State University, Butler realized she wanted to go into textile art. After making a quilt for her grandmother when she was on her deathbed, Butler never went back. As well as being a practicing artist, Bisa Butler was an art teacher in the Newark Public School system for over 10 years. 

In Butler’s quilted works, she incorporates kente cloth, and traditional African wax printed fabrics so that her figures are “adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestors”. She’s known for forgoing realistic flesh colors for jewel tones and using many bright patterns in one piece. Butler’s portrait subjects almost always look directly out at the viewer, forcing them to connect and engage in the discussion that she creates. 

Through her use of quilts as a medium, Butler harkens back towards the long legacy of African American quilting, from enslaved people making quilts from scraps to stay warm, to the resistance and ingenuity of the quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. 

portraitsIn collaboration with Kat Sampson, we present The Not Just Dead White Guys coloring book with 24 vibrant portraits, showcasing influential artists from various eras and continents. Half are contemporary artists, including Bisa Butler, who are shaping the art scene today, while the others are important historical figures. Join us to celebrate their diverse contributions and create a more inclusive art world!

Written by:
Wendy Bonham-Carter
Sep 05, 2023