In the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work, “Bisa Butler: Portraits” the Katonah Museum of Art at features larger-than-life quilts that capture African American identity and culture. The exhibition opens Tuesday, March 17. Organized by KMA associate curator Michele Wije, it includes about 25 of Ms. Butler’s most important works to date.
The exhibition runs through June 14. It will then travel to the Art Institute of Chicago, where it will be on exhibit from Sept. 5 to Jan. 24, 2021.
“The Katonah Museum of Art is thrilled to be working with Bisa Butler on her first museum show,” Ms. Wije said. “Her monumental, quilted portraits of African American life and cultural identity are striking in their originality with each choice of fabric conveying multilayered historical meaning and narrative.”
Ms. Butler’s career has been on an upward trajectory in part after she was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, in September 2019. A formally trained African American artist of Ghanaian heritage, she broaches the dividing line between creating with paints on canvas and creating with fiber by fashioning quilts and elevating a medium traditionally designated as craft into one that is high art.
“While quilts have historically been isolated in the history of art as products of working women, Ms. Butler’s work not only acknowledges this tradition but also reinvents it,” KMA representatives said. “Continuing with an aesthetic set in motion by artists such as Romare Bearden and Faith Ringgold, Ms. Butler forges an individual and expressive signature style that draws upon her own cultural background and experiences.”
Ms. Butler’s emergence as an artist began humbly when, as a result of a fiber arts class taken at Howard University, she constructed a quilt for her dying grandmother mainly as a means of comfort. As a child Ms. Butler had often spent time poring over black-and-white photographs with her grandmother, who told her the stories about the people in each one. This experience of creating narrative and identity informs the artist’s quilts. The vibrant portraits of African American life and the tales the quilts tell are largely based on photographs that have inspired her artwork.
While Ms. Butler was unavailable to be interviewed by The Record-Review, she shared her artist’s statement: “My community has been marginalized for hundreds of years,” she wrote. “While [we] have been right beside our white counterparts experiencing and creating history, our contributions and perspectives have been ignored, unrecorded and lost. It is only a few years ago that it was acknowledged that the White House was built by slaves. Right there in the seat of power of our country, African Americans were creating and contributing while their names were lost to history.”
Ms. Butler described her subjects as African Americans from ordinary walks of life who may have sat for a formal family portrait or may have been documented by a passing photographer. “Like the builders of the White House, they have no names or captions to tell us who they were,” she wrote. “These unknown stories fascinate me. I feel these people; I know these stories because I have grown up with them my whole life.”
In her artist statement, Ms. Butler described her grandmother’s birth in Plaquemine Parish, Louisiana, and details about the life of her own father, who, she wrote, “left Ghana in 1960 with a scholarship to study in the United States and a suitcase with one shirt and one pair of pants. I know the pride of hard work and the dignity of these people because they are my people. I can imagine their lives because they are me and I am them. I grew up listening to the tales of my elders and I heard about what it felt like to be cold and hungry, but also to have love for ones family.”
Ms. Butler earned her degree at Howard, a historically black university in Washington, D.C. One of her teachers was AfriCOBRA founder Jeff Donaldson, who, along with other professors, “taught us to be proud of our African heritage and to always present our people in a positive light,” Ms. Butler wrote in her statement. “They taught us we had a responsibility to document and correct the misinformation that had been told about our people, and about Africa. We use our art as a tool to tell our side of the story to the masses and the mainstream.”
Ms. Butler wrote that she quilts because it was the technique taught to her at home. “I could sew before I ever painted on a canvas. My grandmother and mother sewed almost every day,” she wrote. “African Americans have been quilting since we were brought 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,” she noted.
From these scraps the African American quilt aesthetic came into being, Ms. Butler wrote, adding that her own pieces are reminiscent of this tradition but that she uses African fabrics from Ghana, batiks from Nigeria and prints from South Africa.
“My subjects are adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestors,” she wrote. “If these visages are to be recreated and seen for the first time in a century, I want them to have their African ancestry back. I want them to take their place in American history. I want the viewer to see the subjects as I see them.”
Ms. Butler said she hopes people view her work and see the expressions of joy, the vibrancy of colors, and the quiet dignity of her portraits. All her pieces are done in life scale “to invite the viewer to engage in a dialogue — most figures look the viewers directly in their eyes,” she wrote. “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.”
For more information, call 232-9555 or visit katonahmuseum.org.
Katonah Museum of Art is located at 134 Jay St., Katonah.