Bisa Butler is an American fiber artist known for her vibrant, quilted portraits celebrating Black life -- from everyday people to notable historical figures. Through her quilts, Butler aims to “tell stories that may have been forgotten over time.” She often uses kente cloth and African wax printed fabrics in her quilts, so her subjects are "adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestor." The artist has exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the Epcot Center, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and other venues.
Butler was born in Orange, NJ, the daughter of a college president and a French teacher. She was raised in South Orange, the youngest of four siblings. Butler's artistic talent was first recognized at the age of four, when she won a blue ribbon in an art competition.
Formally trained, Butler graduated Cum Laude from Howard University with a Bachelor's in Fine Art degree. It was during her education at Howard that Butler was able to refine her natural talents under the tutelage of lecturers such as Lois Mailou Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, Jeff Donaldson and Ernie Barnes. She began to experiment with fabric as a medium and became interested in collage techniques. Butler then went on to earn a Masters in Art from Montclair State University in 2005.
While in the process of obtaining her Masters degree Butler took a Fiber Arts class where she had an artistic epiphany and she finally realized how to express her art. "As a child, I was always watching my mother and grandmother sew, and they taught me. After that class, I made a portrait quilt for my grandmother on her deathbed, and I have been making art quilts ever since."
Bisa Butler was a high school art teacher for 13 years; 10 in the Newark Public Schools and 3 at her own alma mater, Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey.
Butler’s work was most recently the focus of a solo exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York that will subsequently travel to the Art Institute of Chicago. Her works are included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; Newark Museum of Art; The Toledo Museum of Art and Orlando Museum of Art, among others.
In 2019 Butler was a finalist for the Museum of Arts and Design Burke Prize. Her portrait of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai was featured as a cover for Time Magazine’s special issue honoring the 100 Women of the Year in 2020.
Butler's quilts both heavily incorporate African textiles as well as expand on a rich African American quilting tradition. She explains in her artist statement: "African Americans have been quilting since we were bought to this country and needed to keep warm. Enslaved people were not given large pieces of fabric and had to make do with the scarps of cloth that were left after clothing wore out. From these scraps the African American quilt aesthetic came into being....My own pieces are reminiscent of this tradition, but I use African fabrics from my father’s homeland of Ghana, batiks from Nigeria, and prints from South Africa." She has also been inspired by the figurative textile works of Faith Ringgold.
Butler typically works in bright jewel tones rather than representational colors to depict skin tone. Color serves to convey the emotions of the individuals in her quilts rather than their actual complexions. While at Howard, Butler was mentored by members of AfriCOBRA. The artist collective's bright, colorful aesthetic and aim to create positive representations of Black Americans can be found in Butler's body of work, as well.
Her quilts often feature portraits of famous figures in Black history, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jackie Robinson, Frederick Douglass, and Josephine Baker. She uses a variety of patterned fabrics, which she carefully selects to reflect the subject's life, sometimes using clothing worn by the subject. Her portrait of Nina Simone, for example, is made of cotton, silk, velvet, and netting, while that of Jean-Michel Basquiat is made of leather, cotton, and vintage denim.
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 describes her fascination for her nameless subjects' unknown stories: "I feel these people; I know these stories because I have grown up with them my whole life." She strives "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."
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