Brooklyn-based Bisa Butler is a fiber artist who is part of the African American quilting tradition. She makes intricate, kaleidoscopic quilts of life-size portraits of African Americans with vibrant, colorful, and richly patterned fabrics in an AfriCOBRA style.
Butler’s mother is from New Orleans, and her father was born in Ghana. She studied painting at Howard University and attended lectures by Black artists, one of whom was Lois Mailou Jones. At the university she was mentored by members of the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), who defined a black aesthetic of portraiture which combined political texts and the use of strong colors – ‘Kool-Aid’ colors – rather than the traditional European palette.
When she was a student studying for her Master’s Degree at Montclair State University in New Jersey, she took a fiber art class and in 2001 made a quilt for her ailing grandmother. This work was based on a photo of her grandparents on their wedding day, and when it was finished, she was hooked on quilting. She graduated from Montclair in 2004 and has been making quilts ever since. Butler became a high school art teacher in Newark, New Jersey for several years and quilted on weekends and in the summer.
For the early quilt of her grandmother she used the same technique that would be used for all of her later works: she would start with a photograph. She used black-and-white photographs of family members, historical photographs of everyday people from the Farm Security Administration in the National Archives, or known photographs of larger than life figures such as Frederick Douglas. “I’m trying to give my subjects back an identity that’s been lost.” She enlarges the chosen photograph to life size, sketches over it, and marks up the dark and light areas. She chooses fabrics that explode with color – most striking in the jewel-toned mosaics in her treatment of Black skin. “I use West African printed fabric, kente cloth, and Dutch wax prints to show that my figures are of African descent and have a long, rich history behind them.” She cuts, layers, and pins dozens of fabric pieces over the sketch and sews them together in a process called appliqué. The finished portrait is placed on top of batting, with a backing fabric placed under the quilt. A pattern of stitches is finally applied to all three layers to hold the piece together. One quilt can take from three hundred to a thousand hours to complete.
One of her quilts, “I Am Not Your Negro,” is based on a 1936 photograph by Dorothea Lange of an African American man looking at the camera, lost in thought with his hat in his hand. Butler’s life-sized portrait shows this man dressed in vibrant colors which includes a fabric printed with airplanes possibly suggesting that he is a world traveler. The title is based on the words of author James Baldwin, who wrote, “I am a black man, an African American man, and I am not ‘your’ Negro. I am not an intellectual inferior to anyone.” Another quilt, “The Tea,” is taken from a 1941 photograph by Russell Lee of three women talking together outside of a church. Butler’s use of vivid colors and patterns show that these women were part of the Black middle class.
Butler’s quilted portrait of activist Wangar Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was used on the “Time Magazine” cover for their special issue honoring 100 women of the year.
In 2010, her work was part of a satellite exhibition by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. She has shown her work at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the California African American Museum, and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. She was to have her first solo museum exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York from March to June, 2020, but due to the Coronavirus it was extended to October, 2020. It will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Her work is in the permanent collection of “The Kinsey Collection,” the Art Institute of Chicago, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.