Bisa Butler’s Vibrant Quilted Portraits Share Extraordinary Stories of Black Americans
“I find myself drawn to photographs that remind me of my grandmother’s photo albums, of aunts and uncles, cousins, and ancestors that I’ve never known,” says Bisa Butler (previously), who stitches swatches of vibrant fabrics into striking, life-size portraits of Black figures. At the core of her practice is a recognition of individuals’ accomplishments throughout history, often those of regular people who were extraordinarily courageous in the face of immense adversity. With two large-scale works currently on view in Washington, D.C. and a solo exhibition at the Gordon Parks Foundation in Pleasantville, New York, the artist is developing several new ideas, themes, and directions.
Butler often sources photographs from historic archives, such as an iconic portrait of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and rescued approximately 70 enslaved people through the Underground Railroad. The artist’s portrait of Tubman is powerfully titled “The General,” infused with bold patterns and patchwork. Another piece, “Colored Entrance,” is based on Gordon Parks’s iconic photograph titled “Department Store.” Taken in racially segregated Mobile, Alabama, in 1956, the image portrays a mother and daughter standing beneath a neon sign that denotes a separate entrance they are permitted to use.
Increasingly, Butler collaborates with living photographers and artists. Spurred by a desire for connection during pandemic lockdowns, she approached Janette Beckman, whose photographs of 1980s hip-hop stars like Run DMC and Salt-N-Pepa documented the era and graced genre-defining album covers. “My husband, John, who is a hip-hop DJ and producer, shared a photograph of Salt-N-Pepa, and when I saw who did it, I thought, let me be brave,” Butler says. “I sent [Beckman] a message, and I asked her if she would be willing to let me make a quilt based off of her photograph. She was so lovely. She agreed. She even visited me and my husband in our studio, which we share, and she took our photo as well!”
Working in close proximity to her husband has strongly influenced the artist’s practice. While she was creating the Salt-N-Pepa portrait, he made a compilation they call the “Goddess Mixtape,” featuring Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Rapsody, Queen Latifah, Cardi B, and others. Those songs surfaced memories and helped to define the message of her works. “If you listen to the ‘Goddess Mixtape,’ and then you see my quilt of Salt-N-Pepa, you’ll see something about me, something about the 1980s, something about young Black Americans, and something about the expression of women—what it is that we want and what it is that we need,” she says.
“Hot, Cold, and Vicious” portrays Salt-N-Pepa’s era-defining bomber jackets, boots, and bodysuits in bold, African wax fabric, also known as Dutch wax. Combined with vinyl, glitter, and velvet, details like bamboo-shaped “door-knocker” hoop earrings, boomboxes, and LP records were screen-printed onto cotton swatches in collaboration with Butler’s studio neighbor, artist Gary Lichtenstein. “I must have at least forty, maybe fifty bins of fabric, but there are still things that I just don’t have,” she says. “I like Nigerian wax fabric and Nigerian batik or tie-dye fabrics. I also like using Ghanaian kente fabric, and I like Swiss lace—a lot of Nigerian brides use Swiss lace.”
From start to finish, a piece can take about four to six weeks to complete, beginning with loose sketches in Sharpie marker on top of a printout of a photograph and culminating in quilts that include appliquéd details. “When I’m creating quilts, I think about what the personality is of the person who I’m trying to portray,” she says.
Do I want to portray somebody who is contemporary or somebody from the past? Do I want to say that this person is strong and bold and powerful? I might use bright, intense colors: bright red, bright fuschia, bright orange, or even an electric green. If I’m trying to say that this person is more laid-back, more calm, more cool, I’m going to use actual cool colors, like cool water and deep blues.
In her monumental tribute to African American soldiers who fought in World War I, “Don’t Tread On Me, God Damn, Let’s Go!—The Harlem Hellfighters” consists of nine figures detailed in blues, pinks, and reds on a monochrome backdrop of green florals. The 369th Infantry Regiment consisted mainly of African Americans and also included men from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Guyana, among other places. “When they went over to Europe, the white American soldiers refused to fight alongside Black men,” Butler says. “They had been so miseducated—lied to—and had the wool pulled over their eyes to believe that African Americans didn’t have the intellectual capacity to fight as men because they were not full men, some sort of ‘sub-men.’” They were often assigned menial tasks in the U.S. Army, which, like the rest of the country, was segregated.
When the French Army needed support, the U.S. Army lent them the 369th, which ultimately spent more time in the front-line trenches and suffered more casualties than any other American unit. Legend has it that the Germans called them the Höllenkämpfer or “Hellfighters” for their tenacity and resilience on the battlefield, and the name stuck. “They went over; they wanted to help win that war. And they wanted the respect as men,” Butler says. The scale of her quilt puts the soldiers at nearly life-size, and they meet the viewer’s gaze directly, evoking a sense of familiarity and connection with each individual.
Butler’s solo exhibition Materfamilias at the Gordon Parks Foundation Gallery runs through April 14, and her quilts are also included in This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through April 2, and Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience. at the National Museum of African American History and Culture through April 1. She will present a solo show with Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in New York City this May and is currently preparing for a large-scale solo exhibition in Washington, D.C., in 2025. Find more on the artist’s website, and follow updates on Instagram.
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