Quilt Artist Uses African Fabrics to Create Warm Portraits

by Diana I

You cannot miss the beautiful quilts that artist Bisa Butler creates. She draws from various patterned and vibrant fabrics and textiles, often pulled from the African continent, to create portraits of people.

The Quilt Portraits Art

Instead of focusing on celebrities or historical figures from history to create a profit, Butler’s work focuses on everyday people.

You won’t find her quilts using representational colors as she favors using layered jewel tones with different hues to form skin colors. Butler often focuses on minority cultures and populations, grouping figures together in her finished pieces to develop a robust silhouette.

Butler Has Always Focused on Creating Portraits

Bisa Butler says that she has always been fascinated by the idea of a portrait in modern art. According to the information posted on her website, her love of the everyday person started with her grandmother. They would look through the old family photo albums together, talking about the stories of the people they found there.

Butler says that she was the girl who wanted to hear the tales of every picture that got stored in those albums. It is a curiosity that stayed with her even today. She often starts a quilt by having a black and white photo to serve as the foundation of the work. That’s what allows her to craft such an incredible story with each stitch.

The artist learned her craft by studying fine art at Howard University. She started using fabrics in her paintings while attending the institution, eventually converting to quilting as a way to continue making art while starting a family. Butler says that she didn’t want to expose her daughter to potentially toxic fumes or materials with her other endeavors.

You can see her work at the Claire Oliver Gallery. Butler was born in New Jersey, but she is currently living and working out of Brooklyn. More information is available on her Instagram.

The Artist Wants to Tell Her Story

Butler says that she is telling the African-American story through the quilts she designs and produces. She believes that history is each person’s story, but the narrative that people see is controlled by the author who holds the pen, keyboard, or needle.

She says that her community has suffered from marginalization for centuries. Even though African-Americans have been beside their white counterparts for all of the country’s pivotal moments, they don’t receive the credit they deserve for their contributions.

Butler says that “our contributions and perspectives have been ignored, unrecorded, and lost.” She points out that it was only a few years ago that historians acknowledged that the White House, America’s grandest home where the President resides, was initially built by slaves.

That means right there, in the seat of power, African-Americans were contributing their names to history by creating something incredible.

The White House stands for the power of freedom and democracy, but its creators are conveniently forgotten because they didn’t receive the same right to pursue their dreams.

Her Subjects Have No Names or Captions

Butler doesn’t use names or captions for her work because she wants people to remember the fact that people have forgotten about this part of the culture. The individuals you see on her quilts are the African-Americans who come from an “ordinary walk of life.” You might have seen them sit for a formal portrait or be documented by a passing photographer, but you wouldn’t have known who they were.

“The unknown stories fascinate me,” Butler says. “I feel these people. I know these stories because I have grown up with them my whole life.”

In her artist statement for the gallery, Butler talks about her Aunt Shiela, whose family left their home for Chicago in the 1940s. Her father left Ghana in 1960 to study in the United States. He brought a briefcase with him that contained one shirt and a pair of pants.

Butler says that she knows about the pride that comes from hard work because that’s where she grew up. Her portraits show the quiet dignity of each person because they partially reflect who she is as a person.

Quilting feels right because that’s what African-Americans have been doing almost every day since they were forced to come to this country centuries ago. They had to make do with fabric scraps to create what they needed. When you invest in Butler’s work, you’re adding a new chapter to the stories that her people have been developing for so long.



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