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Artist Bisa Butler's "portrait quilts" celebrate Black life and history

Artist tells Black history through quilt work
Artist Bisa Butler on creating new narratives through "portrait quilts" 07:08

Artist Bisa Butler has been called a modern-day Griot. But instead of using words to tell stories, she uses stitches and cloth.

Her quilts have graced the covers of magazines, and she created the striking illustration for the soon-to-be-released book "Unbound," the memoir of activist and Me Too movement founder Tarana Burke. 

Butler's vividly detailed portraits often reimagine the lives of those they portray, and now Butler's life is launching in a new direction.

Just four years past her career as a high school art teacher, Butler has unveiled her first show at a major museum and it's one of the world's most renowned – the Art Institute of Chicago.

"When I first started making quilts, they were not considered fine art. They were considered crafts," she said. "I call my work now 'portrait quilts.'"

Every fiber of her life sizes portraits is imbued with meaning – from the patterned African fabrics themselves, to how they're patched together. Inspired by her mother and grandmother's dress making, Butler celebrates the craft as well as the beauty and pride of the Black lives they depict.

"I think that historically, quilt work, craft work has been marginalized because it was the work of women. And it was the work of people of color," explained Butler. "It was considered like a domestic labor."

Butler says there's a dialogue between the subjects of her art, real-life figures, and those who consume it. It's a conversation resurrecting stories from the African diaspora that are often forgotten or dismissed.

"When I find photos online or in databases of Black people who are unnamed and unknown, I feel like I owe it to them to try to sort of ascertain what was their identity," she said.

The portraits range from those whose stories are a mystery to central characters in American history. One of Butler's works, on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, transforms a sepia-tone image of Harriet Tubman into a kaleidoscope of vibrant tones.

Color is Butler's way of communicating: if someone seems to be more somber, she might use shades of blue and purple, for example. The artist brings her work to life at her home studio in New Jersey, where each figure takes about six weeks to craft. The portraits capture the stories of who people are, and who they want to be. 

One of her most recent works, created over seven months, is now featured at the Newark Museum of Art. "The Warmth of Other Sons" depicts Black families migrating to the North in search of a better life. But Butler also takes liberties in taking care of her subjects, such as one who originally wasn't pictured with shoes.

"If you look at the original, he doesn't have shoes," she said. "People wanted to travel in their very best, so if he didn't have shoes, it's because they couldn't afford them. And that's something that I'd like to give back."

"Each bit of fabric I've touched and stitched on, so the emotions from me are going into the quilt itself."

That purposeful intent is now focused on her next project for the Smithsonian – the Harlem Hellfighters, who helped the U.S. win World War I. It will feature nine soldiers ranging from 19 to 33 who fought in an all-Black, segregated unit – figures from the past who will timelessly come back to life in Butler's hands to be celebrated across different backgrounds and generations.

"I want people to be able to look at my work and see the humanity in it. And, let's say, for people who are not Black to understand that we are all human beings and we have the same wants and desires, loves and fears," said Butler. "And for Black people, I want them to see themselves and realize that I recognize who you are and we are the same."

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