Tuesday 25 May 2021

Bisa Butler: Reclaiming lost identities through the traditional craft of quilt making

Here is our next blog piece from our 'Race and Resistance' module by student Emma on her essay on Bisa Butler: 

“I realise how much of a responsibility you have as an artist. You are a reflection of our times, so whether you are a writer, a dancer, a filmmaker, painter, sculptor, you’re reflecting the times you live in and after you’re gone all that is left is that reflection” – Bisa Butler (2020)

The act of quilt making, particularly within African American communities, has been deintellectualised over the centuries due to its connections to feminine domesticity and their practical everyday use. As a result they have not been widely utilised in the research of African American cultural history. However Bisa Butler is striving to remove the stigma from this once devalued artform by harnessing skills which has been passed down to her throughout the generations and reclaim African American histories. 

Bisa Butler’s maternal family originate from New Orleans and Ghana on her paternal side, she lives in New Jersey and began her artistic journey as a Fine Art student at Howard University. Under the tuition of her professors she learned the principles of the AfriCOBRA movement (African Commune of Bad and Relevant Artists). Founded in 1968, AfriCOBRA’s work intersected with the Black Power movement, but with a view to bring about change by celebrating Black identity, creating their own aesthetic to encourage empowerment within communities opposed to political revolt. Defying European standards they adopted the AfriCOBRA ‘Kool-Aid’ pallet, which utilised bright and vibrant colours paying homage to African traditional art and fabric, removing the requirement for white paint. Inspired by her teachings at Howard, Bisa Butler makes use of ‘Kool-Aid’ pallet of bright oranges, yellows, crimson reds and intense blues, to create distinctive pieces which inspire, intrigue, and encourage further observation. Her works have recently been displayed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and has successfully recently held her first solo museum exhibition Bisa Butler: Portraits at the Katonah Museum of Art, New York.

“When Black people see my work, I’m hoping that they see reflections of themselves, like a mirror, but the self that you want to be and the self that you really are. And I hope that when White people see my work, they understand that Black people are just like them as well. I’m hoping that people find that connection and feel this connection to humanity in general” – Bisa Butler

One of Butler’s story-telling pieces which hopes to return lost identities is Four Little Girls, September 15, 1963 (2018). The life-size appliqué quilted artwork depicts four smartly dressed girls in ‘church attire’, playfully positioned each with their own unique character defined by the individual colour schemes used for their faces and clothing; separately expressing happiness, innocence and a whole life of hope and possibility. 

Four Little Girls, September 15, 1963, 2018

Cotton, silk, lace, appliqued and quilted; 154.9 x 198.1cm (61 x 78in.)

This quilt depicts Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, who were victims of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama terrorist bombing attack by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963. The four girls were killed and twenty-two others injured. However, instead of depicting this violent act of terror, Butler has represented the girls as an act of memorialization giving them the opportunity to “joyously thrive where black resilience reigns” (Ko in Warren, 2020:55). 

Butler’s colourful interpretation of characters in all her works breathe life and positivity, whilst creating stories for those who have previously been ignored or forgotten. Carefully selecting fabrics for their individual meaning and widely utilising traditional African fabrics and patterns in all her pieces, she creates links to cultural heritage; during this process she also combines American stories and people upholding the AfriCOBRA principles. As a result Bisa Butler produces thought provoking artworks which are faithfully African American, which will leave a legacy for future generations to tell the African American side of American life.

Further reading:

Bisa Butler (2021) [Instagram] Available at: www.instagram.com/bisabutler

Katonah Museum of Art (December 2020) Art Institution of Chicago - Bisa Butler: Portraits (Exhibition Stories). Available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_4gD1K3mZA  

Katonah Museum of Art (2020) Bisa Butler: Portraits – Virtual Exhibition. Available at: www.katonahmuseum.org/exhibitions/virtualexhibitions/ 

Smithsonian American Art Museum (2020) Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture: Bisa Butler. Available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsVT3v_AdTU

SOK Vision (2020) Quilting for the Culture: Bisa Butler, 06 June. Available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=_P3_61nh3xo

Warren, E (2020) Bisa Butler – Portraits. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

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