“Bisa Butler: Portraits,” on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, lets the viewer into the artist’s vivid, multicolored perspective, shown through more than twenty quilted works. The walls are adorned with large-scale textile portraits of African-American people. The painter-turned-mixed-media-quilter redefines the use of fabric by giving it meaning beyond the utility form.
The artist learned to sew from her mother and grandmother, which echoes the deep lineage of quilting in American history. Her use of layering fabrics, and building on top of the textiles, is parallel to the figures she depicts. The African-American faces that we see are a part of history, some forgotten, but still reminiscent of the narrative in our ever-changing society.
These life-size portraits have a familiar feeling to the viewer. Butler creates an alternate universe, where color and texture take precedence over the perceived notions of Blackness. The absence of Blackness in the figures’ pigmentation is recognized as an emphasis on overlooked attributes that racism creates. Butler employs the emotional response to color psychology in each portrait. The viewer reacts and responds to how the pigments make them feel, opposed to how our racialized view of color might.
The potency of each of the gazes in these portraits is tantalizing. Her ability to generate warmth from the quilts without touch creates emotional vulnerability within the viewer. Butler, mentally a painter but physically a quilter, takes her portraits from rare black-and-white images of African-Americans. This is evident in “The Safety Patrol,” which was purchased by the Art Institute and is on view for the first time. The quilt illustrates seven children against a floral background in various emotionally provoking stances. Each of their faces is accented in different bright pigments. There is a sense of lightheartedness juxtaposed with authority. The child in the front takes jurisdiction over the other children’s space in a protective manner. This is just one of many quilts that offers perspective into the complexity of children, with the added layer of being Black.
“Bisa Butler: Portraits,” the artist’s first solo museum exhibition, encompasses twenty-two pieces that cover twenty years of her artistic journey. Butler brings presence and transparency to “craft art” and women who quilt, two aspects that are often overlooked in the canon of western art history. Butler consolidates these concepts in her work with each thread. (Caira Moreira-Brown)
“Bisa Butler: Portraits,” through September 6, 2021. The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan.