Every Fiber of Bisa Butler’s Being

Today is the anniversary of the opening of the Bisa Butler: Portraits exhibition, so we’re celebrating its namesake and creator, Bisa Butler!

Bisa Butler is an American artist, known for her vibrant quilts which are so detailed that they look like paintings. Her work primarily consists of brightly colored portraits of Black individuals, from monumental historical figures to unknown, everyday people. Famous subjects have included Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Nina Simone, and Chadwick Boseman (whose portrait from 2020 is entitled, touchingly, Forever). 

Bisa uses color and material creatively to represent her subjects. Drawing on a long tradition of African quilting, Bisa’s pieces often incorporate African textiles such as kente cloth and African wax printed fabrics. She also uses textures and styles of fabrics which she feels will best represent the person she’s portraying, sometimes even utilizing clothing they wore. Bisa also forgoes realistic skin tones, instead representing the emotions of each individual through vibrant colors. Both in the materials and the subject matter, Bisa’s quilts celebrate Black lives throughout history. 

Bisa’s work has been featured at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and the Epcot Center, among many others. Her work is also permanently exhibited at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Art Institute of Chicago, among many others. Bisa also quilted covers for the cover images of Time Magazine in 2020. Bisa’s waitlist for portrait commissions is several years long. 

Bisa’s first (but definitely not her last) solo exhibition was Bisa Butler: Portraits (2020). In a review of this exhibition, FF2 guest poster Karen Gershowitz says, “The luminous, intense colors and intricate patterns grabbed my attention. I still thought some details had been painted, and leaned in to study one quilt more carefully. A museum guard came over to warn me about getting too close. With awe in her voice, the guard pointed out that each tiny piece was fabric.” She goes on to explain, The more I looked, the more I came to appreciate Bisa’s art. Her choice of subjects, expressions, and messages convey powerful personalities and emotions. The fabrics were chosen for symbolic meaning as well as beauty and help to convey the nature of the individual portrayed. Bisa meticulously constructs these fabric mosaics and takes quilting to a level I’d never imagined, much less seen.” 

Bisa has been able to utilize the quilting medium in a way that is unlike any other artist, achieving incredible dimension with detailed shading, intricate patterns, and layers of color. Beyond her impact as an artist, Bisa has had an impact on history, finding a way to honor Black lives and Black stories in a way that is uniquely hers. 

© Julia Lasker (11/14/2022) FF2 Media


Read Karen Gershowitz’s review of Bisa Butler: Portraits here

Explore Bisa Butler’s work here


Featured photo: “Three Kings” by Eden Pictures licensed under CC by 2.0.

Middle photo: “Untitled” by Ryan Dickey is licensed under CC by 2.0.

Bottom photo: “Untitled” by Ryan Dickey is licensed under CC by 2.0.

Tags: African American Quilts, Bisa Butler, Bisa Butler: Portraits, Chadwick Boseman, Frederick Douglass, Nina Simone, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Quilts, Smithsonian Museum of American History

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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