Fine Art Quilter Bisa Butler — Advancing the Black Tradition of Quilting

An aesthetic exploration of Bisa Butler’s impact on one of America’s oldest crafts.

“African Americans have been quilting since we were bought to this country and needed to keep warm. Enslaved people were not given large pieces of fabric and had to make do with the scraps of cloth that were left after clothing wore out. “ — Bisa Butler

For centuries, Black American women have used folk art to build community and self-worth. Quilting is a mainstay in Black life and Black Art that, unfortunately, few actually recognize for its immense intricacy, creative story-telling uses, and advocacy for Black communing. In fact, during slavery, it was quilting parties called “frolics” where Black women gathered to bond, build kinship networks, and to make family arrangements that helped them survive the harsh times (Cash, 1995).

Sometime in the 1970s, quilting became its own fine art form gaining popularity in galleries and museums due to prolific artists like Faith Ringgold and Loretta Pettway of the Gee Bend Collective (Parsons, 2017). Now, the notion that quilting is simply a home craft is far gone and easily debatable.

Today, young textile and fiber artists have taken on the tradition of crafting quilts for fine art purposes. Whether they create for exhibition or for sales, the trend has grown over the past decade into a phenomenal and lucrative arts movement. There is no better example of this than the soaring success of one incredible fine art quilter, Bisa Butler. Active in the art world since around 2003, Butler has actively used her innovative aesthetic, visual storytelling, and colors theory choices to advance the field of fine art quilting. This bodes well for all textile artists, but even more so for the traditional Black art form.

“Butler has actively used her innovative aesthetic, visual storytelling, and colors theory choices to advance the field of fine art quilting.”

Compiling scraps of fabric, batiks, and prints from Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa, Butler carries on the tradition of using small interlocked and conjoined pieces of fabric to build life-sized works (Claire Oliver Gallery, n.d.). Unique in her execution, her work lends itself to quiet portraiture style imagery of mostly unknown figures who are offering themselves to the viewer. Open, bold, and direct, the figures are ready to be received. The compilation of colors, prints, and shapes drive the eye to various parts of the work. Intricate in her style, Butler’s innovative aesthetic and motifs far surpass those of her predecessors, while at the same time honoring the styles and traditions they put forth.

Reminiscent of Faith Ringgold, Butler uses her own history, the history African Americans throughout the lifespan of America, and their current circumstances to tell stories that go overlooked. We see young men standing at a cool attention. We view matriarchs commanding action and respect. Then, we are shown kids who appear more adult-like than any child should have to be. That’s the story of Black America. Though bold in the best ways, Butler takes an interestingly quiet approach to crucial messages, uses more palatable imagery, and a more vibrant appeal than her predecessors (like Faith Ringgold) to express her aim to infuse a brightness even where, historically, there is hurt.

“Though bold in the best ways, Butler takes an interestingly quiet approach to crucial messages, uses more palatable imagery, and a more vibrant appeal than her predecessors (like Faith Ringgold) to express her aim to infuse a brightness even where, historically, there is hurt.”

Africa The-Land of Hope and Promise for Negro Peoples of the World (detail). Cotton, silk, wool, and velvet, quilted and appliqué,, 2020.jpg. Claire Oliver Gallery.
Africa The-Land of Hope and Promise for Negro Peoples of the World (detail). Cotton, silk, wool, and velvet, quilted and appliqué,, 2020.jpg. Claire Oliver Gallery.

Color theory plays a strong role in all fine art works. From deliberately casting a mood to highlighting a poignant focal area, many artists use color theory as the art, itself. Butler’s work takes an intense display of color combining, intersecting, and overlapping not to overpower the work, but instead to highlight its purpose. It emboldens the overlooked figure. It infiltrates the vibe of the visual story. It supports the viewer’s emotional connection to the piece. Butler creates a transformative moment with each work using a mixture of colors to create skin tones and clothing reminiscent of times past in Black history. However, her choices never allow you to forget that the images are of Black Americans who ought to be acknowledged and remembered by history.

While quilting began as a necessity in the Black community, it is now a tradition that carries the weight of togetherness, resilience, and empowerment. Bisa Butler takes that tradition and advances its impact. She gives it a grander purpose and amplifies its messages for today’s world — which still largely views quilting as a hobby. With intense beauty, intricate skill, and a respectful nod to the ancestors, Butler’s work offers life-sized opportunities for the world to appreciate quilting. It also pays homage to — though some could argue is an advancement over — the artists that once used quilting it to unite, grow. and protect one of America’s oldest group of inhabitants. Either way, it is a brilliant take on a generations-old folk tradition.

You can view Bisa Butler’s latest works at the Claire Oliver Gallery.

“I am inviting a reimagining and a contemporary dialogue about age old issues, still problematic in our culture, through the comforting, embracing medium of the quilt. I am expressing what I believe is the equal value of all humans.“ — Bisa Butler

References:

Cash, F.B. (1995). Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of an African-American Tradition. The Journal of Negro History, 80(1) 30–41. https://doi.org/10.2307/2717705

(No author, n.d.). Bisa Butler. Claire Oliver Galleryhttps://www.claireoliver.com/artists/bisa-butler. Accessed May 15, 2020.

Parson, K. (2017). Quilting in America — A Brief History. Textile Arts Centerhttp://textileartscenter.com/blog/quilting-in-america-a-brief-history. Accessed May 15, 2020.