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The Kid Should See This

Bisa Butler: Portraits, an Exhibition Story from The Art Institute of Chicago

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Dignity and confidence come alive in quilted cottons, silks, wools, tulles, velvets, African wax printed texiles, kente cloth, and other vintage and repurposed fabrics. Fiber artist Bisa Butler found inspiration for her intricately stitched portraits in her family photo albums. Now, she honors the often-unnamed faces in historical photos of Black life.

“I felt, like, this incredible sense of responsibility… like I can’t just leave my people here in this database. Even though they have passed on, I do believe that there’s a spirituality and that their souls are wondering, ‘Who is going to notice this photo, and when?'”

The Safety Patrol, detail
The Safety Patrol
In The Art Institute of Chicago Essentials Tour video above, curator Erica Warren discusses Bisa Butler’s quilted piece titled The Safety Patrol.

“In this work, based on a photograph taken by Charles “Teenie” Harris, Butler considers the potential of seven children as future caretakers of the world and uses lively patterned fabric to connect the subjects of the work to the larger African diasporic community.”

The video, an up-close look at Butler’s 2020-2021 exhibition, also shares clips of Butler working in her studio.

Bisa Butler at work
The Safety Patrol, shoe detail
Bisa Butler
The short Art Institute profile below shares more of her tapestries and her mission to celebrate the subjects’ lives with saturated colors and life-size proportions.

Note: Butler briefly discusses a historical term for African Americans as a part of her photo research.


The Princess
Art Institute Chicago
Butler’s historical research has included images from collections like the Farm Security Administration archives, but she has also reinterpreted photos of Frederick Douglass and contemporary figures like Questlove and the late icon Chadwick Boseman, below:

To see more of her work and learn about her upcoming exhibits, follow Bisa Butler on Instagram.

Watch these related art and textile videos next:
• A New Republic: The portrait work of artist Kehinde Wiley
• How did Yinka Shonibare become an artist?
• Making a new felted kimono coat from recycled sweaters
• The Embroidered Art of Meredith Woolnough
• James Conway Farley, an anamorphic portrait of innovation

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