Written By: Chiara Atoyebi
Bisa Butler Photo Courtesy of the artist’s website 2022.
Bisa Butler, born Mailissa Yamba Butler, was born in Orange, New Jersey in 1973. She is an artist who dares to redefine the boundaries of artistic expression, proving that the only constraint to artistry is the limit of our own imagination. Butler’s journey has proven to be an exploration of not only herself but the African American experience with the use of historical narratives. By fusing the personal and the historical, the functional and the artistic, Butler creates a vivid tableau of African American life.
Early Life and Education
Bisa Butler grew up in a multicultural household, with a French teacher mother from New Orleans, and a Ghanaian father, who served as a college president. As the youngest of four childen she displayed an early aptitude for art, winning her first art contest by four years old.
She continued her art practice as a young adult by enrolling in fine arts classes at the renowned Howard University where she graduated cum laude. While a student at Howard her work was deeply influenced by the lectures of esteemed black artists like Lois Mailou Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, and Romare Bearden. However, despite her formal training in painting, her unique style of interweaving textile and portraiture began to develop when she practiced fiber arts and collage. Her background in sewing, fostered by her mother and grandmother, proved instrumental in this transition. Yet. it was the creation of a quilt replica of her grandmother’s wedding photo that marked a pivotal moment in Butler’s artistic journey, pushing her into unexplored territories of quilting. Today. the beautifully vivid narratives Butler weaves through her quilts incorporate varied materials, from traditional Nigerian hand-dyed batiks and African wax-resist cotton to modernistic holographic vinyl-fabric, silk, wool, velvet, lace and even upcycled fabrics. Using this method of expression, Butler not only has carved out her place in history her compelling creations but has created a unique style all her own.
“I hope that when people look at my work, that they see that interest in humanity and in the individual.”— Bisa Butler, Artist
Bisa Butler, “Three Kings” Photo Courtesy of Janine and Jim Eden Flickr. 2022.
The World is Yours: Bisa Butler’s Committment to telling Black Stories
Butler’s work is a vibrant, polychromatic celebration of African American life and history. Her color choices, reflecting the rich cultural heritage of African textile traditions, upend the monochromatic biases of Western art historical traditions. Her work has also been compared to the 1968 African American art collective, AfriCobra. The Chicago-based visual arts group comprised of Black artists’ primary mission was to empower Black communities and create their own aesthetic. In an interview with the online publication See Great Art, Butler affirms the similarities between her work and those of the AfriCobra visual artists, adding that “the main essence is that it’s not just for me alone, not art for art’s sake, art for the people’s sake.” Butler recognizes that by creating positive Black images, especially of family life, she is also inadvertently making a political statement.
The messages in my work are more indirect. I thought that I was just creating portraits of my family and friends, but unfortunately, in this country, to create a positive image of a Black person becomes a political act,” she said. “It’s not like my work has slogans or overt political statements, but it’s highly politicized just to say, ‘I believe in the Black family.”Bisa Butler, See Great Art
Bisa Butler, Don’t Tread on Me, God Damn, Let’s Go! – The Harlem Hellfighters, 2021, cottons, silk, wool, and velvet, 109 1⁄2 × 156 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of David Bonderman, 2022.25, © 2022, Bisa Butler
In her most recent exhibition, “The World is Yours,” Butler draws inspiration from acclaimed hip-hop artist Nas. The ongoing exhibit featuring the artist’s oeuvre is a proclamation to the fact that this world belongs to all of us. Her visual mantras displayed in “The World is Yours” emerges as an affirmation of belonging, resilience, and ambition against the prejudices and racism that has marked the Black community for generations.
Photo Courtesy of Milo 3oneseven. 2019.
To experience a Bisa Butler exhibition is to encounter the collective memory of a community interwoven with vibrantly hued threads. It is a reminder that the stories we choose to narrate, and the voices we amplify, shape our understanding of history. As we continue to reassess and reinterpret these moments in time Butler’s work provides an invaluable perspective, and a testament to the African American journey and contribution to the American tapestry.
To learn more about Bisa Butler visit her at www.bisabutler.com.