eQuilt Universe · Museums

Bisa Butler • World of Color and Artistry

Bisa Butler, The Safety Patrol (2018) Cavigga Family Trust Fund (© Bisa Butler)

Bisa Butler recently mounted her first museum exhibition at the Art Institure of Chicago and “surmounted biases in the contemporary art world against both people of color and fiber arts” as Deborah Brehmer puts it in an article in Hyperallergic. This recent article was sent to my by my artist sister, Christine Petty, a screenprinter, who, when her studio was shut down, made her way through the pandemic by learning the art of natural dying, and diving into the world of seeds, flowers and yards of softly hued cloth. My sister and I talk art, the drive to make art, and color. I’ve been sent links to Butler’s art from several sources, but the link from my sister sent me to the blog so I could share it all with you.

detail of Bisa Butler’s The Safety Patrol (2018) Cavigga Family Trust Fund (© Bisa Butler)

I created The Safety Patrol while in my last year of teaching high school and simultaneously preparing to debut my artwork with the Claire Oliver Gallery. I was constantly thinking about my career change and at the same time having strong feelings about my students. It was during this time that Trayvon Martin was killed while walking home from the store by a vigilante. Trayvon’s killer had just been acquitted under the Stand Your Ground law in Florida, and I was distraught. I couldn’t reconcile my emotions about the future well-being of my children and my students in a society where their lives are expendable.

To keep reading, artist’s statement is from here

Many quilters use color in their work. But Bisa Butler’s floating figures are drenched in color, not only from multiple layers of fabrics, but also by the use type of fabric: African Dutch Wax prints, which bring not only color, but texture. She artfully cuts and combines her fabrics and includes bits such as the key around the young girl’s neck and the patrol boy’s belt made of carefully fussy-cut kente cloth.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 2019
Minneapolis Institute of Art; Promised gift on long-term loan from a private collection. Photo by Margaret Fox. © Bisa Butler

The skirt on the left: earrings, and the skirt on the right: high heels, chosen by Butler in honor of Michelle Obama’s trip to Ghana.

Bisa Butler, The Storm, The Whirlwind, and The Earthquake, a portrait of Frederick Douglass, from here

In this article in Juxtapoz Magazine (another article worth reading), her migration to cloth from paint is described:

“as an art student at Howard University, she began using fabric to avoid paint, which made her nauseous while pregnant. But she realized something deeper was at play, her actual dissonance with paint. “I could follow the rules technically but I didn’t have the voice. The paint didn’t connect to me.” Butler was introduced to textiles by her mother and grandmother, both dressmakers, who taught her how to make her own clothes. “Fabric was of my family, so using kente related to my heritage. When I made the portrait of my grandfather whom I’d never met, I realized I needed to use all African fabrics, and I used my grandmother’s fabrics that were old because I wanted to assert that this man lived before,” she said.

Reading the Juxtapoz article, I was fascinated by the history and meanings of the Dutch Wax prints and kente cloth, especially the names given to the pieces in Douglas’ portrait, or those in the I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, above.

In the Hyperallergic Magazine article, Brehmer notices some women who gather around one of the quilts:

“I watched a group of three white women take in a piece called “Survivor” (2018), which addresses female genital mutilation. They discussed the technical aspects of quilting. One explained what a “long-arm” sewing machine is. They shared observations regarding the meandering lines of stitching and the way Butler layers transparent lace, silk, and tulle over opaque fabrics to create depth and shadows. They were in awe of the technical mastery of the work.”

Brehmer has noticed how we quilters often interact with many quilts as we notice the technical aspects: “How did she quilt this?” “Is there a pattern?” “Where can I buy that fabric?” I’ve seen it happen at quilt shows and so have you, when we get so involved with “how did the quilter make this” that we forget to notice (in Butler’s case) the joy, the history, the placing of historical figures in our time, asking us to put human lives and needs and challenges at the center of of our gaze. We want to own or borrow that particular quilt artist’s approach and those questions come from that impulse, I’m convinced. While my quilts will never be on par with Butler’s, and my subject matter is — oh, so different — I can learn from how she comes to the work. I can learn to let art climb in and infuse the making with joy and meaning, and yes, with color.

On the Art Institute site, in a short video interview with Butler, we see her studio, get a sense of how she works, and listen to talk about her education and guiding principles in her art. I pulled the images above from that video, and loved the two above of her obvious delight in seeing this exhibit of quilts, of textiles, of history, of her vision in such a storied place as the Art Institute. I think we are all familiar with the Gee’s Bend and Amish quilts, both earlier exhibits in major national museums. I view this exhibit as another break-through show, intended to showcase the art and craft of quilts.

Happy Quilting!

15 thoughts on “Bisa Butler • World of Color and Artistry

  1. I absolutely adore your Sunday lessons and this one is one of the very best!!! Thank you for introducing me to Bisa Butler – what a force!!!!

  2. Wow, just WOW! Such beauty and strength in these photos. The technical aspect is wonderful also, the way the clothing shows all the folds is amazing. Thanks for the introduction to a new to me artist.

  3. Beautiful photos of her work and such interesting information! I’ll have to check if that one pieced is on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Thanks again for sharing.

  4. What a nice rabbit hole of reading you created! Among other things, I”m glad to read of Howard U’s growth in understanding the artness of fabric art! And thank goodness Butler kept on in spite of their early advice.

  5. Thank you for the shout out. Good column. Love, Christine

    On Sun, May 23, 2021 at 6:01 AM OccasionalPiece–Quilt! wrote:

    > Elizabeth E. posted: ” Bisa Butler, The Safety Patrol (2018) Cavigga > Family Trust Fund (© Bisa Butler) Bisa Butler recently mounted her first > museum exhibition at the Art Institure of Chicago and “surmounted biases in > the contemporary art world against both people of color ” >

  6. You opened up my view of quilting as art with this post. I taught a course on African American mobility and jazz last year, and these quilts speak to that experience artistically. The portrait of Frederick Douglass is stunning! I would like to see all of them and be able to admire her stitching and compositions. Let’s go to Chicago!

  7. When are we going to see the exhibit? Thanks for all the links as well. Just downloaded several of the songs from Spotify. You are sooo cool!

  8. Wow! Wow! Wow! Huge thanks to you, Elizabeth, for introducing me to this incredible artist. My mind is blown in the best possible way. I will be seeking out more info about Ms. Bisa Butler and her work. This has been a beautiful introduction. ❤

  9. I went down the rabbit hole on this artist. I don’t normally enjoy watching videos but I watched one after another. She is fascinating to me. I ordered a print and two sets of her postcards. Thank you SO much for introducing her!

  10. Thank you so much for this wonderful post on Bisa Butler and the video link! Her work is awesome and deserves to be better known and I’m grateful for your sharing.

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