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

Written by Chelsea Lee, CNN

Brightly colored and full of visual drama, Bisa Butler’s larger-than-life quilted portraits are almost indistinguishable from the paintings. Creating works that have appeared on the cover of Time Magazine and sold at auction for up to $75,000, Butler is taking quilting into the realm of high art.

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

Bisa Butler’s “Forever” (2020) quilt made in honor of the late Hollywood actor Chadwick Boseman. Credit: photo © Bisa Butler © Museum Associates/LACMA

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

His largest piece to date – a 13-foot by 11-foot portrait of the “Harlem Hellfighters”, an African-American infantry regiment that spent more time on the front lines than any other American troops in World War I – is part of a handicraft exhibition that opened last month at the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the prestigious Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, DC.

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

Using Fabrics to “Describe the Inner Person”

In 2001, while pursuing her master’s degree in art education at Montclair State University in New Jersey, Butler spent her weekends painting a portrait of her grandmother. However, his grandmother was unhappy with the image.

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

To create a portrait that would embody her grandmother’s personality and life experiences, Butler began using fabrics to “depict the person inside”. Working from a photograph of her grandparents’ wedding, Butler made a bedspread that incorporated silks and lace from her grandmother’s leftover sewing materials, referencing her fondness for sewing and for wearing replicas of elegant designer clothing.

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

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

Bisa Butler working with fabrics.

Bisa Butler working with fabrics. Credit: Jill Feyer

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

“I’m drawn to the past,” said Butler, adding that she enjoys working from photographs with which she feels a personal connection. “I’m drawn to images that have some sort of magnetism that’s holding me back,” she explained. Often “it would just be a look”.

After choosing an image, Butler “may end up studying it for over 100 hours”. The subject’s facial expressions, body language, and pose, as well as their clothing and accessories, are useful clues to discovering what they were like as people. Getting under their skin is a central idea in his work.

“If they ever saw this portrait, if their family saw it… do they feel that the artist respects them in the picture?” said Butler.

Quilting has an artistic and pragmatic cultural legacy within the African-American heritage – for example, the work of the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Descendants of enslaved African Americans and living in a remote community, their distinctive quilting style gained national attention in the 1960s with its colorful geometric designs described by one critic as “miraculous works of modern art”.

Exhibition “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” at the Cocoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., 2004. Credit: STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/AFP via Getty Images

“Sewing the Diaspora Together”

Butler adds to that legacy by using a variety of American and African fabrics, including traditional kente cloths from Ghana. The colors and patterns give his portraits a spectacular visual and narrative color, while connecting his works to the African continent.

She layers fabrics to perfection using a technique that was also used to create traditional West African appliqué fabrics in Benin. The process can take up to 200 hours for Butler, after which she begins tracing traditional kente fabric patterns into her quilting stitches.

“I’m trying to unite the diaspora or sew it into my quilt,” Butler said. “Whether I do a portrait of a black American or an African, we have the same ancestry.”

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

Bisa Butler's quilt from

Bisa Butler’s quilt from the “Harlem Hellfighters” – a nickname for the 369th Infantry Regiment. Credit: Can butler

To pay tribute to her resilience, Butler used a Nigerian adire cloth made from indigo-dyed cotton adorned with symbols from an ancient West African Yoruba script and a traditional Mali clay 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 signify the troops’ long journey through conflict.

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

“I’m a big believer in the spiritual sense they see,” she said. “And I hope they can recognize that I’m doing what I can to put them in the position where they should be in the first place.”

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