Bisa Butler creates vibrant, life-size quilt portraits of Black Americans. The unique process by which she translates photographs into luminous, pieced-cloth images is a synthesis of her formal artistic studies and family traditions.
Trained as a painter, Butler later earned a master’s degree in art education. She taught high school art classes for years, making clothes and quilts in her free time. Her many influences include her mother and grandmother, who were sewers; members of the AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad and Relevant Artists) movement such as Jeff Donaldson, under whom she studied at Howard University; quilter Faith Ringgold and collagist Romare Bearden, both of whose work joins fragments of color and pattern into compelling vignettes of Black life; and portraitists Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley.
Each of Butler’s vividly colored quilts starts with a photograph or photographs, preferably black-and-white ones. Some are of famous people (last year she sewed a quilt called Forever to honor actor Chadwick Boseman), some of family (her first quilt depicted her mother’s parents on their wedding day), some of unnamed subjects. For example, her I Am Not Your Negro (2019), its title an homage to writer James Baldwin, is based on a found Depression-era photograph of an unidentified man in Greenville, Mississippi.
Butler enlarges the photo onto paper and outlines areas of light and dark. “It ends up looking like a topographic map with these lines all over it,” she says. Using the drawing as a pattern, she cuts shapes out of different fabrics, including upholstery cloth, velvet, lace, silk chiffon, tulle, organza, and gabardine. She always keeps color symbolism in mind. “If I’m doing [a portrait of] somebody who is considered powerful or a leader, I might use a base of red [wool], and then all the colors that go on top of that are interacting with that red.”
Butler’s fabric choices can likewise convey messages. She often uses Vlisco, a brand of Dutch wax cotton (wax is used in the dyeing process) that is especially popular in West Africa. These cottons feature striking color combinations and patterns, and many have symbolic meanings. Sometimes Butler chooses fabric from her father’s homeland of Ghana.
In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (2019), titled after the poem by Maya Angelou, Butler worked from a late-19th-century photo of four Black women college students seated on the steps of a building at Atlanta University. “[The] caged bird sings of freedom,” Angelou wrote in the poem, and birds in flight are a repeating symbol in this quilt, which depicts students from the first generations of Black women allowed to pursue a higher education in the United States. (Mary Jane Patterson is believed to have been the first Black woman to receive a bachelor’s degree when she graduated from Oberlin College in 1862.) There is one on the hat of the woman seated at the far left, taken from a Vlisco pattern called “Speed Bird,” which represents freedom, prosperity, and transition. On the sleeve of the woman at center right, made from a different Vlisco fabric, another bird flies out of its cage.
The woman on the far right of the composition wears a skirt cut from a Vlisco fabric called “Michelle’s Shoes.” Fabrics in West and Central Africa sometimes celebrate current events or social trends. “That fabric was printed in 2009 after the Obamas visited Ghana,” Butler says. “The crowds just went wild for Michelle Obama’s style, and so Vlisco created two commemorative patterns, ‘Michelle Obama’s Shoes’ and ‘Michelle Obama’s Bag.’” With this textile choice, she created a connection between intrepid early Black female academics and the pioneering Black first lady.
As she builds up her compositions, Butler says, she uses a lot of pins and “little taps” of glue to keep the pieces of fabric in place. The figure or figures are added to background fabrics, batting and a backing cloth. When she is satisfied with her arrangement, she sews the pieces into place with a long-armed sewing machine, adding detail and texture with thread. “Putting [a] figure together might take me a month,” Butler says, “and then maybe one week to sew it.”
The current racial justice movement has inspired Butler to take on more contemporary subjects. “I used to think about all of these shifts in the world and our social justice heroes as [from] the past,” she says, “like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass,” both of whom she has represented in quilts. With recent events, she says, “I became aware that we are living [at an historical moment] and that there are heroes living and breathing right now.” One of her newer quilt portraits is of Tarana Burke, the activist who started the #MeToo movement—it became the cover art for Burke’s 2021 memoir, Unbound.
Butler’s quilt portraits are life-size because she wants her subjects to be on an equal footing with their viewers. One of her greatest rewards as an artist is watching people of all identities responding to her work. “It’s so satisfying when people can see the [humanity] that I’m trying to communicate, that this person is important and valuable; . . . [when they understand] that we’re all the same.”