Known for her stunning and colorful quilted portraits, Bisa Butler seamlessly blends a passion for storytelling with the dynamic medium of textiles to create vibrant works of art that document the Black experience.
Butler was born in New Jersey in 1973, where she first learned sewing techniques passed down to her from her grandmother and mother. Her father was an immigrant from Ghana, and Butler drew inspiration from the colorful fabrics and garments of his homeland, as well as batiks from Nigeria, and prints from South Africa. After majoring in Fine Art and graduating cum laude from Howard University, she wanted to use art as a way to communicate and highlight the stories of people who far too often have been marginalized.
While attending a graduate program at Montclair State University, Butler enrolled in a Fiber Art course that left her inspired by the tradition of sewing and quilting and its long history in the Black community. After seeing the depth and vibrancy it was capable of, she incorporated the medium of textiles into her own work, and it was here that she created her first portrait quilt, Francis and Violette (Grandparents).
Butler has gone on to craft incredible portraits of subjects that include famous figures from Black history as well as unknown, nameless subjects from photographs. In doing so, Butler shines a light of recognition on the lives of so many who have been overlooked and whose contributions have been undervalued. She feels a strong connection to the individuals depicted in her quilts, stating that her subjects “are adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestor. If these visages are to be recreated and seen for the first time in a century, I want them to have their African Ancestry back, I want them to take their place in American History.”
As a fiber artist, Butler’s finished works are exclusively fabric, though she also utilizes paint, photographs, and thread to layer her subjects and add generous amounts of texture and detail. Her stunning quilts offer a focused glimpse into an expanded view of our history, engaging in themes such as family, community, migration, and the legacies of Black figures both celebrated and unknown.
Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of Butler’s work is the large scale of her quilts: “All of my pieces are done in life scale to invite the viewer to engage in a dialogue—most figures look the viewers directly in their eyes. I am inviting a reimagining and a contemporary dialogue about age old issues, still problematic in our culture, through the comforting, embracing medium of the quilt.”
Butler’s work is currently on display as part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Bisa Butler: Portraits exhibition, the first solo museum exhibition of her artwork that includes over 20 of her renowned portraits, and a piece from the Clark collection. She is represented by Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem.