Inside the Magical, Technicolor World of Bisa Butler and Her Revolutionary Quilts

Posted inFine Art

The first time I came upon one of Bisa Butler’s quilted portraits, I stopped dead in my doom scroll, enthralled by her use of vibrant colors, patterns, and texture and spellbound by the history radiating from each fabric panel. But I was also a bit dumbfounded; this is a quilt

I am not alone in this response to Butler’s brilliance, whose dynamic quilting has burst onto the art scene with a flourish of “Kool-Aid” colors powered by a tactile medium that allows for a much deeper historical resonance. 

Quilting has long been underappreciated as a fine art form, but Butler’s portraits restitch that narrative, demanding respect and awe not only for her pieces but for the medium as a whole. Imbued with her family’s patchwork of personal histories from Ghana, New Orleans, Morocco, and New Jersey along with themes of the wider African American experience, viewing Bisa’s portraiture is immersive, affecting, and profoundly celebratory. 

Bisa has just wrapped her first solo exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago in early September, where her quilts were fatefully on display at the same time as The Obama Portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak to Bisa recently, where she shared reflections on her journey as an artist and the richness inherent to the art of quilting. 

Can you describe your relationship with quilting? What brought you to the medium, and what does quilting allow you that painting and other art forms don’t?

For me, paint never really was the medium, but I didn’t know what else that could be. I went to grad school to become an art teacher because I knew that I loved art. But I knew that I wouldn’t get my MFA in painting because there was no passion behind it for me. I felt like I had the skill and the talent, but I didn’t have the vision or the why. 

In grad school at Montclair State, to be in the master of arts program, you had to take jewelry making and fibers as part of the foundation. So I had to take those classes, and thank God I did. I remember my first day walking into the fibers studio; it was nothing like the painting studios whatsoever. There was a lot of light in the room. There was a lot of warmth. 

There were walls and walls and rows and rows of yarn. So, the room was brightly colored, and you got this warm feeling being in that space since so many materials were soft. There were weaving looms in the back, sewing machines, and blenders because sometimes people needed to blend materials together for felting. So you had all of these things that reminded you of home and a nurturing environment. It felt like going to your best friend’s house, and you sit at the table to talk. That’s the way it felt in the fiber studio. So I immediately felt like this felt right, being in that space. 

My classes were mostly young women, but it’s the total opposite when you’re in most of the studio classes. When I took drawing at Howard and Montclair State, it was me and maybe two other girls in the room. So the energy was different in the fibers studio. More of a feminine energy, and that helped me feel more at home, more at ease. The vibe between fiber artists, women artists, primarily, is it’s a community of sharing. Quilting was usually done in a round. The quilters would all sit around a table or quilting frame, and each person sews on that same quilt. It was done communally, especially in poor homes and households where everybody submitted some scraps for the quilt and contributing to make this one piece of art. In the painting studio, usually, each student artist gets their own little studio. There’s a lot of solo time, and that impacts how you interact with other artists. Quilting from the very beginning was about sharing, community, and nurturing, which was what I needed at the time. I was a struggling artist, I was a young mother, and while I was in grad school, my grandmother passed away in 2001, and then my mother passed away in 2003. My entire foundation and family structure that I had been relying on for so long was gone, so I needed comforting at that time. I happened to be in that fibers class, and I had made a quilt for my grandmother before she passed away, so I already knew that I had found a medium that connected with me on an emotional level. 

When I made the portrait of my grandmother, I asked her and my mother for their fabric scraps, and they were so excited to share this aspect of their life with me, and I used them in the quilt that I made of my grandmother. As I was working on it, all of the bells were ringing. Light bulbs were going off. I was like, I’m making a portrait of my grandmother out of the pieces of her life. So you can respond to it by seeing that it’s a picture of Violet Hammond, and also you see the fabrics that she used in her life. You see the soft, worn, and yellowed lace, and it makes you think of the past. 

I realized in that class that I had been given a gift. I realized I could make a portrait of someone that not only looks like them but gets made up of parts of their life. And other people can understand that portrait more intimately based on the fabrics that I choose. 

Quilts are tombs of history. Printed fabrics give you a date and time. If I’m using oranges and blues and dayglow flowers made of polyester, you know that fabric is from the 70s because they’re not making fabric like that anymore. So by me using my grandmother’s fabrics that she wore in the 60s and the late 50s, you recognize the time; when was this made, how did this person live that they had access to lace or velvet or dayglow flowers.  

Quilting also worked with my lifestyle as a mom who did not have a babysitter. The materials of painting were toxic. They made me sick while I was pregnant, and after I had my children, they could not be around painting knives, long paintbrushes, turpentine, and varnish. So I had to do art that fit with my lifestyle. 

Was there a moment when you realized you had found something special in your quilting work?

I was sitting in grad school in class, showing the portrait I made of my grandmother, and I knew something different was happening there. I could see it in their faces, in my professor’s face, and in myself. I was like, this is something different in a really good way. It was more like they were looking at the piece in awe, and I had never seen that with my work before. It was like “WTF” on their faces, and I knew too. I couldn’t even really verbalize what was happening. I was describing how even someone who’s visually impaired can understand that portrait because they can touch it and feel it, so it was a multisensory portrait, and my professor was like, you’re just going to do this for the rest of the semester. You don’t have to do the other projects. It was a real shift; I felt it in the room. 

Why do you think quilting as an art form gets undervalued and has been overlooked for so long? 

Prejudice and sexism, basically, in a nutshell. It’s a shame. 

Quilts were traditionally women’s work. So artwork that was done primarily by women is looked at like craft. Also, with the European and American sensibilities we have in this country, artwork that’s utilitarian and useful is looked down upon. It’s not considered a fine art. And as far as Black quilters, they were used as enslaved labor to create cloths for the slave owners’ homes, and they would use the scraps of those cloths for their families and their own children to keep themselves warm. The artwork that they did on those quilts was looked at as primitive and disorganized. But now, upon further examination, when you look at some of the African American freeform quilts or abstract quilts, you see a lot of imagery, shapes, and patterns that look like they’re coming from Africa directly. So you realize that these women remembered and passed down patterns and designs from their family and grandparents, going all the way back to West Africa. You see designs and symbols that you see in Kente cloth. You see them in designs from Ghana and Benin. There’s a direct correlation between those quilts, but they were misunderstood and mischaracterized in this country as random. So I think those things held quilting back from being accepted as fine art. But not just quilting, that would go for most of the fiber arts—the weaving, the felting, the knitting, the crocheting—because these artworks are utilitarian and made by women. 

Do you think there has been a shift in the way people view and respect quilting as a fine art form? 

I do think that there’s been a shift. The last fair that I went to, Art Basel 2019, walking around the fair, I saw a number of artists working in fibers. More than I could count on two hands. The year before, I think I saw three. And the ones that I did see were men. There are some male quilters out here who have gotten a lot of acclaim or notice because it was somehow fascinating that they could do this women’s craft, and do it well. So they were uplifted very quickly. There was a backlash I noticed within the quilting community. It was like, yes, these guys are doing good work, but there have been women doing this work all along and haven’t gotten that recognition.

How does an old-world, handcraft medium like quilting transfer to the digital world of 2021?

I’m such an analog, old-fashioned type of person. I just start with paper and a pencil with a sketch, and cutting and pinning and sewing are not the techniques that people look at as new age or futuristic, or anything that would translate well online. But I think that it was an easier transition for me because I base my work on photographs. A camera is an old technology, but it’s evolving now that we have digital photography. So the images portrayed in my quilts are made by machines originally—the machine being the camera—and that helps bridge the gap in these images to be understood and consumed by people that are looking at screens and on their phones. I’m taking a photo and deconstructing that photo, breaking it down into little bits, and then basically restructuring it, repurposing it, and giving it a second life in a whole other medium, and then taking a photo of that new image and putting it online. So even though what I’m doing is a quilt by its materials, the processes that I use to get the image and post the image bring it back into the digital space. 

A lot of people have noted that my work looks like a painting or some sort of digital art. I think that comes from the source being a photograph and then my own love of bright technicolored colors that I use in my artwork. The colors that I use are directly coming out of Africa in the 1960s and the US in the 1960s and 70s. Really bright dayglow, loud oranges, and electric blues, and disco purples. I love those shades because I grew up with them. I was born in the 70s, and translating all of those colors and putting that on a piece of artwork gives it that hi-tech, technical image even though it’s really just fabrics and cloths stitched together. 

How did studying art specifically at Howard, an HBCU, craft who you are as an artist? 

Howard is a destination for all different types of Black people from all over the world to converge. The curriculum and the mission were always very centered around our place as Black people in this country and how we see things, and how we need to see things to survive, and be aware of what our history is in this country and around the world. And that spread into the School of Fine Arts as well. The School of Fine Arts’ philosophy was formed in the 60s. The painting faculty were in the group called AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), and they were the visual arm of the Black Power Movement. The AfriCOBRA artists were like it is our task to help enlighten and educate our people. Black people should feel good when they see your artwork. They should see themself in your artwork. They should be reminded that they are valuable and they have a history and past outside of the ghettos and poverty. You had a past before slavery. You came from a place, and that place is honorable and beautiful. And they tasked us with that at school. That really influenced my artwork now. 

When people see my artwork, I want them to feel whole and feel good. Not every artist has to have that philosophy. I’m not saying you can’t just make art for art’s sake. But because that was drummed into me, that’s a part of me now. I have to leave people feeling like they’re coming back with something more.