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  • Three Kings, Bisa Butler, 2018, quilted and appliquéd fabric. Photo: courtesy the artist

Textile artist Bisa Butler stitches portraits in patchwork

The artist's exhibition is opening amid a global pandemic and anti-racism protests

During her degree in fine art at Howard University in Washington DC, Bisa Butler studied painting but never quite took to it. Her professor encouraged her to draw on the influences around her – the clothes she made for herself out of African fabrics inspired by the sewing talents of her mother and grandmother, and the music and people she was always surrounded by – and to look to the work of Romare Bearden, an artist who combined fabric, newsprint and collage. Taking note, she started gluing fabric onto canvas, but it wasn’t until she took a class on fibre art during her postgraduate studies that it hit her. ‘I realised I could just switch entirely to fabric and put the brushes and paint aside.’

The Princess, Bisa Butler, 2018, quilted and appliquéd fabric. Photo: courtesy Alex Barber

Butler names the quilts of world-renowned artist Faith Ringgold and those made by the women of Gee’s Bend in Alabama as influences, but her work doesn’t bear much similarity to either. Instead, a painterly quality is evident in her handling of colours and light. ‘I developed my own techniques – a sort of hybridisation between painting, in which I start with a sketch and use layers of fabric like a painter would.’

After 13 years as a high school art teacher she has only recently devoted herself full time to her practice. Since then, her subject matter has broadened out from portraying family members to people who she feels an affinity with, as well as becoming bigger in scale and more intricate – with more layers and types of fabric used to create greater depth, texture and shadows.

Sunday Morning, Bisa Butler, 2018, quilted and appliquéd fabric. Photo: courtesy the artist

Her exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York – Butler's first solo museum show – features 26 of her fabric portraits. These range from her earliest works to those marking the inauguration of President Obama. The show was due to open on March 15 and then travel to the Art Institute of Chicago in September, but plans were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown. ‘The show has been hanging all this time, desolate in the empty museum, waiting for people to come see them,’ she says. ‘It took me years to prepare – some of the pieces were made when I first started making quilts back in 2001 – so I was devastated, to say the least.’

For Butler, the impact of the pandemic has been deeply personal. ‘I know countless people who have passed away – the virus has not finished ravaging my community.’ This devastating experience has particular resonance in her work because she first started making quilts around the time she was mourning her grandmother. ‘I tried to paint her and failed miserably and then created a quilted portrait for a class project,’ she recalls. ‘The making of the quilt was healing for me because I could use fabrics she had given me and I could use techniques that she had taught me. The quilt was soft and warm and I needed comforting at that time.’

I Am Not Your Negro, 2019

Since the lockdown began, global events have taken another turn – the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis on 25 May has sparked a global movement against racism, and the particular treatment of black people in the United States and beyond. ‘My artwork has always been about honouring and allowing my people to be seen,’ Butler says. ‘Now more than ever that is important when so many white people are coming to terms with the fact that they had been wilfully ignoring the plight of black people, which has turned a lot of attention on me and my fellow black artists.’ 

‘Black people need solace and to see positive images of themselves,' she adds. 'I am carrying on as I was before: celebrating the ordinary, highlighting the beauty of black people. But my audience that was once primarily black is now mixed – white people seem to be interested in seeing images they might previously have ignored. I want everyone who sees my work to see the soul and humanity in them – to realise and understand that we are people, and our lives matter.’

‘Bisa Butler: Portraits’ opens on 24 July 2020 at the Katonah Museum of Art, New York, and is on display as an online exhibition until then

An earlier version of this article appeared in
Crafts' March/April issue