Bisa Butler’s stunning quilted portraits celebrate black identity and African roots

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Bisa Butler's stunning quilted portraits celebrate black identity and African roots

Written by Chelsea Lee, CNN

Brilliantly colored and full of visual drama, Bisa Butler’s larger-than-life quilted portraits are almost indistinguishable from paintings. With work that has appeared on the cover of Time Magazine and sold at auction for up to $75,000, Butler brings quilting to the fine art world.

For over 20 years, Butler, who lives in New Jersey and whose father is Ghanaian, has made quilts honoring “people of African descent”, ranging from obscure motifs copied from old photographs to more contemporary figures such as the late Kenyan wealthy environmental, social and political activist Wangari Mathaai and the late Hollywood actor Chadwick Boseman.

bisa butlers quilt, "Forever" (2020) honoring the late Hollywood actor Chadwick Boseman.

Bisa Butler’s Forever (2020) quilt honoring the late Hollywood actor Chadwick Boseman. Recognition: Photo © Bisa Butler © Museum Associates/LACMA

“I hope black people see a reflection of themselves,” she says, “and I hope people of all races see themselves the same way and realize that we are all human.”

Her largest piece to date – a 4.1 x 3.5 meter portrait of the “Harlem Hellfighters,” an African-American infantry regiment that spent more time on the frontlines during World War I than any other American force – is part of an exhibition of handicrafts that opened last month at the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the renowned Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.

But Butler, a formally trained artist, only began her journey into quilting because she was struggling with a painting.

“Describe the inner person” with materials

In 2001, while studying for her Masters in Art Education at Montclair State University in New Jersey, Butler spent her weekends painting a portrait of her grandmother. However, her grandmother was unhappy with the picture.

“I saw her as my old grandma and she saw herself as a woman,” Butler recalled.

To create a portrait that embodies her grandmother’s personality and life experiences, Butler began using fabrics to “describe the inner person”. Based on a photograph from her grandparents’ wedding, Butler made a quilt that incorporated silk and lace from her grandmother’s leftover tailoring materials, alluding to her love of sewing and wearing replicas of elegant designer outfits.

The piece, which captures multiple dimensions of the woman’s identity, became Butler’s first quilted portrait and was given to her bedridden grandmother, who taught her to sew. “It really was the perfect way for me to show her how much she meant to me,” Butler recalled.

Butler soon became known for creating quilted portraits that offer a nuanced interpretation of their subjects’ historical, cultural, and personal narratives, while paying tribute to Butler’s West African roots and African American heritage.

Bisa Butler works with fabrics.

Bisa Butler works with fabrics. Recognition: Jill Feyer

Her pieces are often based on black and white photographs of ordinary black people taken between the 1850s and 1950s and obtained from the National Archives.

“I’m drawn to the past,” Butler said, adding that she enjoys working with photos that she feels personally connected to. “I’m drawn to images that have a kind of magnetism that grabs me,” she explained. Often “it would just be a look”.

Once she chooses an image, “Butler can end up studying it for over 100 hours”. The subject’s facial expression, body language, and pose, as well as their clothing and accessories, are useful clues to discovering what it was like as a human. Getting under their skin is a central idea of ​​their work.

“If you ever see this portrait, if your family ever sees it…do you feel like the artist respects you in the picture?” Butler said.

Quilting has an artistic and pragmatic cultural heritage within the African American heritage – for example the work of the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Descendants of enslaved African Americans living in a remote community, their distinctive quilted style attracted national attention in the 1960s with their colorful geometric patterns, described by one critic as “wonderful works of modern art”.
"The quilts of Gees Bend" Exhibited at the Cocoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, 2004.

“The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” exhibit at the Cocoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, 2004. Recognition: STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/AFP via Getty Images

“Sew the diaspora together”

Butler contributes to this legacy by using a variety of American and African fabrics, including traditional kente cloth from Ghana. The colors and patterns add spectacular visual and narrative color to her portraits, connecting her works to the African continent.

She seamlessly layers the fabrics using a technique also used to create traditional West African appliqué fabrics in Benin. The process can take Butler up to 200 hours, after which she begins to trace traditional kente fabric patterns in her backstitches.

“I’m trying to tie the diaspora together or sew them together on my quilt,” Butler said. “Whether I’m doing a portrait of a black American or an African, we’re of the same ancestry.”

Butler’s quilt of nine Harlem Hellfighters took 11 months to complete. As she examined the soldiers’ lives, she saw similarities between the racial injustices of the past and the present. Despite their bravery in battle, they faced the same discrimination and exclusion at home as other African Americans.

Bisa Butler's Quilt "Harlem Hellfighters" - a nickname of the 369th Infantry Regiment.

Bisa Butler’s quilt of the “Harlem Hellfighters” – a nickname of the 369th Infantry Regiment. Recognition: Bisa Butler

To celebrate their resilience, Butler used a Nigerian indigo-dyed cotton Adire cloth, decorated with symbols from an ancient script in the West African Yoruba language, and a traditional Malian mud cloth. Mudcloths are often patterned with repeated geometric shapes and symbols that represent a person’s social status, historical events, and character. Butler used this cloth to symbolize the troops’ long journey through the conflict.

The Harlem Hellfighters were posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in September 2021. Now, with her quilt of the troops on display at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, just a block from the White House, Butler hopes her work can bring the story of the soldiers to the attention of more people.

“I believe very much in the spiritual sense that they see,” she said. “And I hope they can see that I’m doing everything I can to put them in a position where they should have been in the first place.”

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