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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take Free Cours­es on African-Amer­i­can His­to­ry from Yale and Stan­ford: From Eman­ci­pa­tion, to the Civ­il Rights Move­ment, and Beyond

Too Big for Any Muse­um, AIDS Quilt Goes Dig­i­tal Thanks to Microsoft

The Solar Sys­tem Quilt: In 1876, a Teacher Cre­ates a Hand­craft­ed Quilt to Use as a Teach­ing Aid in Her Astron­o­my Class

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

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  • Sandra Marsh says:

    These quilt paint­ings are stun­ning­ly beau­ti­ful. I hope there will be an oppor­tu­ni­ty soon to see these mas­ter­pieces in per­son or in per­haps a cof­fee table book.

  • Shirley Olatunde says:

    This Quilt col­lec­tion of our his­to­ry is AWESOME. Our ances­tors put a lot a blood, sweat and tears in the sto­ries that was and still is being told in Quilt­ing. Tru­ly a inspi­ra­tion. Thanks for shar­ing ❤️

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