Based in New York, Bisa Butler's textile artworks weave history, identity, and the resilience of the African American experience into vibrant and meticulously crafted fabric portraits. In them, Butler not only captures the essence of black individuals but also serves as a storyteller, addressing the complexities of history and black people’s persistent struggle for equality, reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Reduced Inequalities.
Butler attributes her practice to her immediate ancestral roots, which trace back to a poignant moment in history. Her grandmother was the only African American on the Clyde-Mallory liner Iroquois during the evacuation of war-stranded American civilians from Belgium in 1939. This pivotal moment sets the stage for Butler's exploration of the inequalities faced by black individuals, even amid global upheaval.
The incident on the ship, where Butler's grandmother had a cabin to herself due to the refusal of others to share with a Black person, becomes a powerful symbol of racial disparities which Butler decided to commemorate in her piece Family. Made out of patched textiles, the piece is a portrait of her grandmother, grandfather, and her aunt Wanda as a young child.
Butler's choice of using textiles as a medium holds significant symbolism. By using fabrics, often with cultural and historical ties to the African diaspora, she bridges the gap between art and heritage. Her technique reminisces the art of quilting, which carries heavy significance within the African American community as a marker of history since quilts are often passed down between women as family heirlooms. Enslaved Black women were often forced to quilt fine clothing and bedding for their enslavers while they and their families lacked sufficient clothing, hence heirloom quilts have become a testimony of their resilience.
Now, Butler's meticulous selection of fabrics contributes to a broader conversation about cultural representation and the reclamation of narratives that have often been marginalized.
Not only that, Butler's technique of using colorful thatched fabric fosters a sense of community with people who do not necessarily have Black heritage. Their playfulness invites viewers to engage emotionally with the subjects in her portraits. The vibrant colours, intricate patterns, and expressive faces evoke a sense of shared humanity, challenging preconceived notions and stereotypes. In a world where inequalities persist, Butler's art becomes a bridge, fostering connections and mutual understanding.
Bisa Butler's work also extends beyond her narratives, encapsulating broader moments in African American history. Through textile portraits, like Four Little Girls, September 15, 1963, she pays homage to prominent figures, unsung heroes, and everyday individuals who have contributed to the rich tapestry of African American culture. Four Little Girls, September 15, 1963, particularly refers to the killing of four African American girls by members of the Ku Klux Klan when they bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a meeting place for civil rights leaders. By bringing these stories to the forefront, Butler contributes to a more inclusive representation of history, challenging historical omissions and biases.
Reducing inequalities often begins with education and awareness. Butler's art serves as a powerful educational tool, prompting conversations about the historical and contemporary challenges faced by black individuals. Exhibitions of her work provide spaces for dialogue, encouraging viewers to confront uncomfortable truths and engage in discussions about systemic injustices.
Not only that, in a world where Eurocentric beauty standards have often prevailed, Butler's portrait of women like The Equestrian redefines notions of beauty by celebrating the natural features of black individuals. Through her choice of fabrics and the meticulous attention to detail in her portraits, she highlights the diverse and authentic beauty found within the black community. This celebration of black beauty becomes a form of resistance against ingrained prejudices and contributes to a more inclusive and equitable perception of aesthetics.
By weaving threads of history, identity, and empathy through her textile portraits, Bisa Butler's artistic journey is a testament to the power of creativity in challenging and transforming societal narratives. Her art becomes a visual manifesto, urging society to confront its biases, celebrate diversity, and strive for a world where everyone, regardless of their background, is treated with dignity and equality. Through the medium of textiles, Butler stitches together a vision of a more inclusive and harmonious future, one where the inequalities of the past are unravelled and replaced with a vibrant, interconnected tapestry of shared humanity.