Dear Mama, 2019.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
Celebrating February as Black History Month in the USA is an opportunity to highlight the work of Black leaders and milestones in racial justice movements and their central place in American history. Running concurrently with the month, the Art Institute of Chicago is hosting Bisa Butler: Portraits (Nov. 16, 2020 – Apr. 19, 2021). It showcases twenty two quilts in four galleries, and engages with themes of family, community, migration, the promise of youth, and artistic and intellectual legacies.
Bisa Butler (born 1973), is an American fibre artist, known for her quilted portraits and designs celebrating Black life.
Portraits is meticulously stitched with vivid fabrics that create painterly portraits with the quilts conveying multidimensional stories and narratives of Black life. Though her work carries on the African American quilting tradition, her process and technique have developed in an innovative and individual way. She was trained as a painter at Howard University and shifted to quilting while pursuing her master’s degree at Montclair State University. She created her first quilt titled Francis and Violette, based on her grandparents’ wedding photograph, as a project for a class on fibre art. While her early quilts depicted family members and friends, in choosing subjects for her more recent works, she has pored over thousands of historical photographs. When she finds individuals that resonate with her, she transforms the photograph and recreates it using hundreds, if not thousands, of fabric pieces that she layers and then stitches together. The labour intensive process can take hundreds of hours to complete.
“The vibrancy and scale of Butler’s work really captivates viewers, and once they are pulled in, they experience an often startling realisation 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. Butler’s methods remain interdisciplinary, though her finished works are exclusively fabric. She looks to photographs to inform her compositions and figural choices, and layers fabrics as a painter might layer glazes. She uses thread to draw, adding fine detail and texture with her stitching. The fabrics chosen for her textile portraits also speak to a shared African diasporic history; many of the African-printed fabrics she employs are popular in West African countries, including Ghana, where Butler’s father is from. Through her combination of subjects and materials, she represents and contemplates the diasporic nature of Black history in each portrait.
“In my work I am telling the story — this African American side — of the American life,” she says. “History is the story of men and women, but the narrative is controlled by those who hold the pen.” Among the highlights of the exhibition is The Safety Patrol, a life-size textile portrait, based on a Charles “Teenie” Harris photograph of a young boy with his arms stretched, protecting six other children behind him, acquired by the Art Institute in 2018.
Butler’s work is paired with photographs by Gordon Parks, as well as work by AfriCOBRA members Barbara Jones-Hogu and Nelson Steven, to demonstrate the interdisciplinary nature of her textile-based practice. AfriCOBRA is an African-American artists’ collective formed in Chicago in 1968. The juxtapositions highlight her artistic predecessors and link her work to a vast artists’ network, while emphasising her singular vision. Butler typically works in bright jewel tones rather than representational colour. She has stated that her work is reminiscent of the African American quilting tradition originating from enslaved people using scraps of fabric to make quilts to stay warm. She often uses African fabrics in her work, so her subjects are “adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestor.” The artist likes her art to “tell stories that may have been forgotten over time.”
Her quilts often feature portraits of famous figures in Black history, and she uses a variety of patterned fabrics, which she carefully selects to reflect the subject’s life, sometimes using clothing worn by the subject. Along with her portraits of notable figures, Butler also creates pieces featuring everyday, unknown African American subjects, that she bases off of found photographs. She said in an interview that “as a child, I was always watching my mother and grandmother sew, and they taught me. After that class, I made a quilt for my grandmother on her deathbed, and I have been quilting ever since.”
She describes her fascination for her nameless subjects’ unknown stories thus: “I feel these people; I know these stories because I have grown up with them my whole life.”
She tries “to bring as many of these unnamed peoples photos to the forefront” so “people will see these ordinary folks as deserving of a spotlight too.” Her pieces are done in life scale in order “to invite the viewer to engage in dialogue - most figures look the viewers directly in their eyes.” She has also exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the Epcot Center and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, among other venues. Bisa Butler: Portraits is curated by Warren. The exhibition is organised by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Katonah Museum of Art. Major funding is contributed by the Cavigga Family Trust. Additional support is provided by The Joyce Foundation and Darrel and Nickol Hackett. A catalogue accompanies the show.
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