Bisa Butler interview

My Bisa Butler interview from spring of 2021 highlighting her exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago was one my most enjoyable conversations with an artist. Butler’s groundbreaking quilted portraits have placed her among the most in-demand artists in the world. She has works popping up in major shows everywhere I look, the solo show in Chicago, the cover of “Essence” magazine.

While she and I covered a great deal of ground in our conversation which I wrote about on, I was unable to include equally fascinating portions of our conversation that I’d like to share here.

Bisa Butler and AfriCOBRA

Butler lists the Chicago-based AfriCOBRA artists as an influence. I go crazy for the AfriCOBRA artist’s vibrant and expressive use of color and their positive Black power imagery, often centered around the family.

What about AfriCOBRA inspired Butler?

“The main thing about AfriCOBRA, their purpose was arts for the people. Arts for the healing of Black people, especially at the time,” Butler said. “They were young and active in the 1960s, the Black Power movement was new and direct and Black people were standing up for themselves; even a simple statement like, ‘I’m Black and I’m proud.’

“Although I do think my work mimics their color choices and some of their themes, I think the main essence is that it’s not just for me alone, not art for art’s sake, art for the people’s sake.”

How does Bisa Butler manage being artistic with being political?

“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 quilt portrait, Wangari Maathai, 2020. Quilted wax print fabric. Orlando Museum of Art.
Bisa Butler quilt portrait, Wangari Maathai, 2020. Quilted wax print fabric. Orlando Museum of Art.

Fine art quilting

I finished my Bisa Butler interview asking her this question: How do her quilts, which are now being seen in America’s top art museums alongside painting and sculpture, contribute to a reassessment of quilting and fiber art, remove their marginalization as “craft” – separate and not equal – but fine art?

“I think it helps break down even more barriers to separation. I think the movements that have been running through our country, the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo movement, (they’re) making us reexamine, why is it that primarily women’s artwork is somehow ‘craft,’ what is it that’s actually different?,” she said. “I think because my work walks the line – a trained painter who is quilting – puts that confrontation out in the open. So, if you can accept my work because it looks painterly than can you accept somebody else’s because it doesn’t look painterly? And it’s not just me, there are plenty of quilters out here who are doing non-traditional work and maybe they’re just not getting the attention they should be getting.”

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