Bisa Butler’s Beautiful Quilted Portraits of Frederick Douglass, Nina Simone, Jean-Michel Basquiat & More

Fiber artist Bisa Butler’s quilted portraits of Black Americans gain extra power from their medium.

Each work is comprised of many scraps, carefully cut and positioned after hours of research and preliminary sketches.

Velvet and silk nestle against bits of vintage flour sacks, West African wax print fabric, denim and, occasionally, hand-me-downs from the sitter’s own collection.




In The Warmth of Other Sons, a 12-foot, life-sized portrait of an African American family who migrated north in search of economic opportunity, a wary-looking young girl clutches a purse to her chest. The purse is constructed from a commercial wax cotton print titled Michelle Obama’s Bag, which commemorates one of the former First Lady’s trips to Africa.

As anthropologist Nina Sylvanus writes in Patterns in Circulation: Cloth, Gender, and Materiality in West Africa:

To wear this pattern…is both to honor and aspire to be ravishingly beautiful and powerful like Michele Obama; It is considered a must-have fashion piece in the wardrobe of stylish women in Abidjan, Lomé, and Lagos.

The vibrant colors of Butler’s materials also inform her portraits, particularly those inspired by historical figures whose images are most familiar in black-and-white.

She is also deeply influenced by her undergraduate years at Howard University, where many of her professors were part of the AfriCOBRA artists' collective. They encouraged students to think of blank canvases as black, rather than white, and to throw out the Beaux Arts palette in favor of West African fabric’s Kool-Aid colors—“bright orange, bright yellow, crimson red, intense blue.”

As she describes in the above video:

The initial start is who’s it gonna be? Then after you choose that person, choose your color scheme. The color scheme is based on what you feel about that person. People have color around them, in them, that is not evidently visible to the naked eye.

The Storm, the Whirlwind, and The Earthquake, her recently completed full-length portrait of a 30-year old Frederick Douglass, reimagines the abolitionist’s 19th-century garb as something akin to a modern day Harlem dandy’s bold embrace of color, pattern, and style, deliberately challenging the status quo. The rich color scheme extends to his skin and the homey background fabric.

Butler, who was raised in an art-filled New Jersey home by a Black American mother and a Ghanian father, also credits her grandmother, the subject of her first quilted portrait, with helping her find her aesthetic.

An early attempt to paint a portrait of her beloved relative (and childhood sewing instructor) resulted in disappointment on both sides. The crestfallen artist’s aunt tipped her off that the older lady’s mental self-picture was that of someone 30 years younger.

Inspired by the collaged work of Romare Bearden, Butler gave it another go, this time in quilted form, taking care to represent her grandmother as an attractive woman in the prime of life. This time her efforts were met with enthusiasm. “I could feel an energy in the room that something new was happening,” Butler recalls.

Whether her subjects are living or dead, Butler strives to bring the same sense of “dignity and regal opulence” to unsung citizens that she does when creating portraits of such famous Americans as Nina Simone, Zora Neale Hurston, Jackie Robinson, Lauren Hill, Josephine Baker, and Jean-Michel Basquiat:

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. From these scraps the African American quilt aesthetic came into being. Some enslaved peoples were so talented that they were tasked for creating beautiful quilts that adorned their enslavers beds. My own pieces are reminiscent of this tradition, but I use African fabrics from my father’s homeland of Ghana, batiks from Nigeria, and prints from South Africa. My subjects are adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestors. 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. 

Explore the work of Bisa Butler on the artist’s Instagram, or MyModernmet and Colossal.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Exquisite 2300-Year-Old Scythian Woman’s Boot Preserved in the Frozen Ground of the Altai Mountains

Shoes and boots, show where your feet have gone. —Guy Sebeus, 10 New Scythian Tales 

In the age of fast fashion, when planned obsolescence, cheap materials, and shoddy construction have become the norm, how startling to encounter a stylish women’s boot that’s truly built to last…

…like, for 2300 years.

It helps to have landed in a Scythian burial mound in Siberia’s Altai Mountains, where the above boot was discovered along with a number of nomadic afterlife essentials—jewelry, food, weapons, and clothing.




These artifacts (and their mummified owners) were well preserved thanks to permafrost and the painstaking attention the Scythians paid to their dead.

As curators at the British Museum wrote in advance of the 2017 exhibition Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia:

Nomads do not leave many traces, but when the Scythians buried their dead they took care to equip the corpse with the essentials they thought they needed for the perpetual rides of the afterlife. They usually dug a deep hole and built a wooden structure at the bottom. For important people these resembled log cabins that were lined and floored with dark felt – the roofs were covered with layers of larch, birch bark and moss. Within the tomb chamber, the body was placed in a log trunk coffin, accompanied by some of their prized possessions and other objects. Outside the tomb chamber but still inside the grave shaft, they placed slaughtered horses, facing east.

18th-century watercolor illustration of a Scythian burial mound. Archive of the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg

The red cloth-wrapped leather bootie, now part of the State Hermitage Museum's collection, is a stunner, trimmed in tin, pyrite crystals, gold foil and glass beads secured with sinew. Fanciful shapes—ducklings, maybe?—decorate the seams. But the true mindblower is the remarkable condition of its sole.

Speculation is rampant on Reddit, as to this bottom layer’s pristine condition:

Maybe the boot belonged to a high-ranking woman who wouldn’t have walked much…

Or Scythians spent so much time on horseback, their shoe leather was spared…

Or perhaps it’s a high quality funeral garment, reserved for exclusively post-mortem use…

The British Museum curators’ explanation is that Scythians seated themselves on the ground around a communal fire, subjecting their soles to their neighbors’ scrutiny.

Become better acquainted with Scythian boots by making a pair, as ancient Persian empire reenactor Dan D’Silva did, documenting the process in a 3-part series on his blog. How you bedazzle the soles is up to you.

via ArtifactsHub

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

DEVO Is Now Selling COVID-19 Personal Protective Equipment: Energy Dome Face Shields

According to DEVO's co-principle songwriter and bassist Gerald Casale, the experimental art band turned early MTV pop-punk darlings were “pro-information, anti stupid conformity and knew that the struggle for freedom against tyranny is never-ending.”

Their singular performance garb also set them apart, and none more so than the bright red plastic Energy Dome helmets they donned 40 years ago this month, upon the release of their third album, Freedom of Choice.




The record, which the band conceived of as a funk album, exploded into mainstream consciousness. The visuals may have made an even more lasting impact than the music, which included the chart topping "Whip It."

Even the most anti-New Wave metalhead could identify the source of those domes, which have been likened to upturned flower pots, dog bowls, car urinals, and lamp shades.

What they probably don’t know is the Energy Dome was “designed according to ancient ziggurat mount proportions used in votive worship. Like the mounds, it collects energy and recirculates it. In this case, the dome collects energy that escapes from the crown of the human head and pushes it back into the Medula Oblongata for increased mental energy.”

Thus sayeth Casale, anyway.

DEVO’s 2020 concert plans were, of course, scotched by the coronavirus pandemic, but the band has found an alternative way to mark the 40th anniversary of Freedom of Choice and the birth of its iconic headgear.

In addition to face masks emblazoned with the familiar red tiered shape, DEVOtees with money and confidence to spare can ante up for a DIY Personal Protective Equipment kit that transforms a standard-issue Energy Dome into a face shield.

It’s worth noting that before taking your converted energy dome out for a particle deflecting spin, you’ll have to truffle up a hard hat suspension liner and install it for a proper fit.

Casale heralded the opening of DEVO’s merch store in a Facebook post:

Here we are 40 years later, living in the alternate reality nightmare spawned by Covid 19 and the botched response of our world “leaders” to do the right thing quickly. We are not exaggerating when we say that 2020 could be the last time you might be able to exercise your freedom of choice. If you don’t use it, you can certainly lose it.

Uh, he’s talking about voting, right, rather than storming the capitol building to demand the premature reopening of inessential businesses or making outsized threats in response to grocery store mask policies?

Perhaps the power of the Energy Dome is such that it could reawaken the pro-information, anti-stupidity sensibilities of some dormant DEVO fans among the unmasked rank and file.

As Casale himself posited in an interview with American Songwriter: "You make it taste good so that they don’t realize there’s medicine in it."

Pre-order masks and PPE kits from DEVO’s official merch store.

Download instructions for installing a hard hat suspension replacement inside the Energy Dome prior to attaching the shield.

via Consequence of Sound

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Here latest project is an animation and a series of free downloadable posters, encouraging citizens to wear masks in public and wear them properly. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Power of Costuming in Film: Pretty Much Pop #38 with Whitney Anne Adams (Happy Death Day, Great Gatsby)

How does clothing mesh with set design, cinematography, sound design, etc. to create the mood in a film? Whitney designed for and dressed leads and crowds on The Great Gatsby, the Happy Death Day films and several indie flicks. She joins Erica, Mark and Brian to discuss how clothes on screen relate to clothes in life, designing vs. curating, historic vs. modern vs. genre, when costumes get distracting, her current TV and film picks for notable costuming, and how an interest in (or total obliviousness to) clothes affects the watching experience.

Read a few interviews with Whitney about her process:

More articles to make you think about costumes:

Follow Whitney on Instagram @waacostumedesign. She's also the stylist for Brian Tyree Henry (i.e. Paper Boi on Atlanta). Some of the indie films she's worked on that we bring up include Piercing, The Eyes of My Mother, and Irreplaceable You.

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

What the Iconic Painting, “The Two Fridas,” Actually Tells Us About Frida Kahlo

I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality. —Frida Kahlo

You may be forgiven for assuming you already know everything there is to know about Frida Kahlo.

The subject of a high profile bio-pic, a bilingual opera, and numerous books for children and adults, her image is nearly as ubiquitous as Marilyn Monroe’s, though Frida exercised a great deal of control over hers by painting dozens of unsmiling self-portraits in which her unplucked unibrow and her traditional Tehuana garb feature prominently.




(Whether she would appreciate having her image splashed across shower curtainslight switch coversyoga mats, and t-shirts is another matter, and one even a force as formidable as she would be hard pressed to control from beyond the grave. Her immediately recognizable countenance powers every souvenir stall in Mexico City’s Coyoacán neighborhood, where Casa Azul, the home in which she both was born and died, attracts some 25,000 visitors monthly.)

A recent episode of PBS’ digital series The Art Assignment, above, examines the duality at Frida’s core by using her double self-portrait, The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas), as a jumping off place.

Kahlo herself explained that the traditionally dressed figure on the right is the one her just-divorced ex-husband, muralist Diego Rivera had loved, while the unloved one on the left fails to keep the untethered vein uniting them from soiling her Victorian wedding gown. (The vein, originates on the right, rising from a small childhood portrait of Rivera, that was among Kahlo’s personal effects when she died.)

It’s an expression of loneliness and yet, the twin-like figures are depicted tenderly clasping each other’s hands:

Bereft but comforted

Fractured but intact

Lonely but not isolated

Broken but beautiful

Humiliated but proud

Kahlo's boundaries, it suggests, are highly permeable, in life, as in art, drawing from such influences as Bronzino, El Greco, Modigliani, Surrealism, and Catholic iconography in both European religious painting and Mexican folk art.

As for the new thing learned, this writer was unaware that when Kahlo married Riveraher elder by 22 yearsin a 1929 civil ceremony, she did so in skirt and blouse borrowed from her indigenous maid... a fact which speaks to the end of her popularity in certain quarters.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

These Boots Are Made for Walkin’: The Story Behind Nancy Sinatra’s Enduring #1 Hit (1966)

You put on your boots
And I’ll put on mine
And we’ll sell a million records
Any old time
- Lee Hazlewood

Musicians!

Looking to increase your chances of a hit song, one that will worm its way into the public’s hearts and ears, earning fat royalty checks for half a century or more?

Try starting with a killer bass line.

According to singer Nancy Sinatra, songwriter Lee Hazlewood and arranger Billy Strange swung by her parents’ living room to preview a selection of tunes they thought she might want to record.

The moment she heard "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'"s memorable lick, she knew it was a winner.

(As did her famous father, who looked up from his newspaper after Hazlewood and Strange departed, to remark, “The song about the boots is best.”)




Originally conceived of as a song from the male POV, the 25-year-old, just-divorced Sinatra felt its message would be less “harsh and abusive” delivered by a “little girl.”

Hazlewood agreed, but hedged his bets by directing engineer Eddie Brackett to beef up Sinatra’s vocals with some light reverb.

As biographer James Kaplan describes in Sinatra: The ChairmanHazlewood also offered some discreet direction, insinuating that the vibe to strive for was that of “a 14-year-old girl in love with a 40-year-old man.”

When Sinatra failed to receive his meaning, he shucked all pretense of delicacy. Nancy shared his marching orders in her 1985 biography Frank Sinatra, My Father:

…I was still singing like Nancy NiceLady. Lee hit the talk-back switch in the booth and his deep voice blew my ears off. ‘For chrissake, you were a married woman, Nasty, you’re not a virgin anymore. Let’s do one for the truck drivers. Say something tough at the end of this one... Bite the words.’

Or something to that effect…

Kaplan includes how several sources claim that Hazlewood’s actual instruction was to sing it like “a sixteen-year-old girl who f**ks truck drivers.”

(Editor’s note: instructing a young woman to do that in 2020 is far likelier to result in a law suit than a hit record.… and given that most of the sources who abide by this version of Boots’ creation myth preface their statements with the word “apparently,” it may not have flown in 1966 either.)

The song’s immense popularity was given an assist by the 1966 Color-Sonics film, above, shot in 16mm for the public’s enjoyment on 26-inch Scopitone jukebox screens.

It also put a match to the American tinder where go-go boots were concerned. Young women in Britain had already adopted them as the perfect footwear to accompany Youthquake designer Mary Quant’s miniskirts and hot pants. Sinatra and her maxi sweater-wearing back up dancers get the bulk of the credit on this side of the pond.

While "These Boots Are Made for Walkin’" has been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington to Billy Ray Cyrus and Megadeth, the sweetest cover remains songwriter Hazlewood’s, below, in which he namechecks the collaborators of his most famous hit with nary a mention of truckers or teenaged girls.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC TONIGHT, Monday, February 3, as her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York, The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How a Philip Glass Opera Gets Made: An Inside Look

Most fever dreams require very little pre-planning and coordination. All it takes is the flu and a pillow, and perhaps a shot of Ny-Quil.

A fever dream on the order of composer Philip Glass’ 1984 opera, Akhnaten, is a horse of an entirely different color, as "How An Opera Gets Made," above, makes clear.

For those in the performing arts, the revelations of this eyepopping Vox video will come as no surprise, though the formidable resources of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, where the piece was recently restaged by director Phelim McDermott, may be cause for envy.




The costumes!

The wigs!

The set!

The orchestra!

The jugglers!

… wait, jugglers?

Yes, a dozen, whose carefully coordinated efforts provide a counterpoint to the stylized slow motion pace the rest of the cast maintains for the duration of the three and half hour long show.

This maximalist approach to minimalist modern opera has proved a hit, though the New York Timescritic Anthony Tommasini opined that he could have done with less juggling…

We presume everyone gets that bringing an opera to the stage involves many more departments, steps, and heavy labor than can be squeezed into a 10-minute video.

Perhaps the biggest surprise awaiting the uninitiated is the playful offstage manner of Anthony Roth Costanzo, the supremely gifted countertenor in the title role. As the pharaoh who reduced ancient Egypt’s pantheon to a single god, Atenaka the sun, he makes his first entrance completely nude, head shaved, flecked in gold, facing the audience for the entirety of his four-minute descent down a 12-step staircase.

(One step the video doesn't touch on is the workout regimen he embarked on in preparation for his nude debut, a 6-day-a-week commitment that inspired him to found one of the first American businesses to offer fitness buffs training sessions using Electrical Muscle Stimulation.)

His dedication to his craft is obviously extraordinary. It has to be for him to handle the score’s demanding arpeggios and intricate repetitions, notably the six-minute segment whose only lyric is “ah.” His breath control on that section earns high praise from his longtime vocal coach Joan Patenaude-Yarnell.

But—and this will come as a shock to those of us whose concept of male opera stars is informed nearly exclusively by Bugs Bunny cartoons and the late Luciano Pavarotti—his outsized talent does not seem to be reflected in outsized self-regard.

He treats viewers to a self-deprecating peek inside the Met’s wig room while clad in a decidedly anti-primo uomo sweatshirt, gamely dons his styrofoam khepresh for close range inspection, and cracks himself up by high-fiving his own pharaonic image in the lobby.

There’s incredible lightness to this being.

As such, he may be more effective at attracting a new generation of admirers to the art form than any discounts or pre-show mixer for patrons 35-and-under.

For further insights into how this musical sausage got made, have a gander at the Metropolitan Opera’s pre-production videos and read star Anthony Roth Costanzo’s essay in the Guardian.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York: The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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