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.
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.
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.
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.