by Manu SharmaSep 20, 2022
The American artist Bisa Butler has an unmatched ability to breathe life into her figurative portraits of folks of African descent. She consciously chooses textile art, a traditionally marginalised medium, to tell the story of the historically marginalised African community. Butler's solo exhibition, The World Is Yours, currently on display at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in New York, is a visual affirmation for victims of systemic prejudice and racism. The exhibition's title has been borrowed from the lyrics of American rapper, Nas's song The World is Yours.
It's mine, it's mine, it's mine
Whose world is this?
The world is yours, the world is yours
— Nas, Illmatic, 1994
The World is Yours is Butler’s ambitious message to upcoming African American generations to highlight the evils of slavery and inspire people to action. Her fine art is a compilation of history, narrative building, visual art and material culture, stitched together in her quilts. Butler, although a textile artist, adopts an interdisciplinary arts methodology, building upon works from iconic contemporary photographers such as Gordon Parks, Janette Beckman and Jamel Shabazz, who skillfully bestow a dignified aura to their subjects, within their work.
She begins by expanding a photograph to life-size before sketching over it, separating light and dark sections. Then, she continues her process by choosing textile materials, stacking them, and sewing them together with a sewing machine: a technique known as appliqué. Lastly, the stitched portrait is laid over soft batting and a backdrop cloth. To hold the quilt together, a repetitive pattern of stitches is applied to all three layers. It can take over hundreds of hours to finish a quilt. Through this interdisciplinary approach, the quilts become a macrocosm of the thread holding together the perceptions of the subject, the photographer, Butler, and the audience.
Butler uses Nigerian hand-dyed batiks and African wax-resistant cotton, combining them with holographic vinyl fabric, silk, velvet, and lace, to drape her fine art figurative portraits in awareness. Her craft is an assemblage of fabrics with evocative tactility that invites the viewer to touch and feel their impression against the ever-softening figures, propelling an urgency to embrace what one sees. The skin tone of her portraits are often depicted in bright technicolour, similar to the colour palette by AfriCOBRA, an artist group who sought to develop an original visual language to depict Black aesthete.
Butler's quilts can be positioned in the lineage of renowned textile artists like Faith Ringgold, Romare Bearden, Harriet Powers and the quilters of Gee's Bend who elevated the centuries-old craft to an art form so as to shed light on the experiences of African Americans. The artist’s oeuvre is also notably radical in its usage of portraiture, a style that was pioneered and historically reserved for European aristocrats, and can now narrate the stories of contemporary black folx.
A stitched portrait of Harriet Tubman, an iconic American abolitionist and social activist, appears in the textile art collection titled The General. The background of this textile features squares of fabric that blend together through the hues of yellow but the stitch pattern allows the sections to be maintained. The yellow colour maintains a pervasive connection through different patches of fabrics, perhaps this a reference to the underground railroad network that Tubman used to free roughly 70 enslaved individuals, including her family and friends. The pleats of the subject’s skirt also create a camouflaging effect, presenting Tubman, this artwork and indeed Butler’s larger oeuvre as guardians of Black identity.
In another artwork, The Secretary of Defense, Butler represents Bill Russel, an American Basketball hero. Russell was also involved in the Civil Rights Movement, boycotting an NBA game in 1961 because a Kentucky restaurant refused to seat him and his Black teammates, according to author Doug Merlino in his book, The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James. Following the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, Russell also hosted the city's first integrated basketball camps. He would go on to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 from then-President Barack Obama. This stitched portrait perfectly captures Russel’s essence, depicted against a backdrop of celtic flowers, and his face exudes hope.
Butler's work is an intervention within the incomplete discourse of art history. She reclaims the forgotten African American tradition of quilt making, and seeks a new identity for it as a contemporary art form. Her entire practice is centered around Black identity, which she weaves masterfully within her work. Through portraiture, she breaks away from African American perceptions depicted by the European aristocratic lens, and in doing so, she not only enables art’s agency to reposition the collective identity of her community, but also confronts the human tendency to revisit history as more of a prophecy, rather than as experiences that offer us valuable lessons to draw from, so that we may create a brighter future for all.
Bisa Butler: The World is Yours is on view at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in New York until June 30, 2023.
Text by Sakhi Sobti (Asst. Editorial Coordinator (Arts))