Museum  February 8, 2022  Megan D Robinson

Bisa Butler on “Black American Portraits” & Her Boseman Tribute

© Museum Associates/LACMA.

Installation photograph, Black American Portraits, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 7, 2021–April 17, 2022.

Challenging past conventions that centered the white gaze and often demonized or fetishized Blackness, LACMA’s Black American Portraits celebrates Black people, art, and culture. Primarily drawn from the museum’s collection, the exhibition brings together approximately 140 works by over 100 artists, spanning roughly 200 years. Subjects span a wide breadth to include historical figures, iconic change-makers, arts and culture luminaries, and ordinary people rendered extraordinary through the lens of art.

The artists range from self-taught to classically trained, and, while primarily Black, include other artists known for their supportive portrayals. The exhibition encompasses a variety of mediums, from painting, drawing, and sculpture, to fiber art, lithographs, photography, and mixed media. It is also something of an homage to LACMA’s 1976 exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, the first comprehensive survey of African American art, curated by world-renowned artist, art historian, and African American art authority David Driskell, who died in 2020.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Cecile Bartman, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.

Portrait of a Sailor (Paul Cuffe?), United States, c. 1800. Oil on canvas. 25 1/4 x 20 1/2 in.

Sequentially arranged in the classic salon tradition across the gallery space, the exhibition begins with the c. 1800 oil portrait of a determined-looking Black man in a jaunty red scarf and blue double-breasted jacket—thought to be sea captain, merchant, and abolitionist Paul Cuffe, a free New Englander from a well-to-do mixed-race family. Given the lack of respectful early depictions of African Americans, the bulk of the exhibition was created by twentieth and twenty-first-century artists.

Fiber artist Bisa Butler tells Art & Object, “I cannot express what it means to me to have been included in the 200 years of black portraiture exhibit. I was able to exhibit with some of the world's most prolific artists from the past and the present. This exhibit represents a space in time where these magnificent artists came together akin to Art Kanes’ photograph, A Great Day In Harlem, and I am honored to be able to say I was there.”

Butler creates quilted portraits, often using found images from historic archives, deliberately selecting colors and fabrics to suggest her subjects’ personalities.

Her gorgeous tribute to film star Chadwick Boseman (1976–2020), Forever, was created “out of love and admiration. That is the way all of my best pieces begin. Chadwick was a larger than life figure—the Black Panther, an activist, a tireless advocate for honor and dignity to his craft and to his people. . . He embodied the best of what I believe will remain long after we are gone; truth and integrity.”

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of D'Rita and Robbie Robinson. © Bisa Butler, photo courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York

Bisa Butler, Forever, 2020. Cotton, silk, wool, and velvet quilted and appliquéd. 86 × 42 in.

In Forever, a near life-sized Boseman stands “in a lush green landscape,” with palm trees and mountains in the background, a bright green rainbow hovering above him. Boseman is wearing red dress shoes and a striped black and red cape over a blue suit with bright yellow lapels and a turquoise waistcoat. In Butler’s Ghanian culture, red and black signify grief over someone gone too soon. Butler explains, “black and red are worn at funerals when the person who passed away was young. The red and black symbolize the anguish their loss brings.”

Butler carefully chose patterns and colors to reflect Boseman’s attributes, and purposefully made the quilted portrait almost life-sized “so that it would feel like he was still here among us.” Neon green lace shows the kinks and coils in his hair, and velvet indicates his “softness and class.” Butler placed him in a tropical wonderland to show that he’s now in paradise.

100 percent of Butler’s portion of the proceeds from Forever print sales through the LACMA store will be donated to the Chadwick Boseman Foundation.

Detail of installation photograph from Black American Portraits, LACMA. Tavares Strachan’s ENOCH is the central gold figurine in the foreground of the image.
© Museum Associates/LACMA.

Detail of installation photograph from Black American Portraits, LACMA. Tavares Strachan’s ENOCH is the central gold figurine in the foreground of the image.

Lezley Saar, Of a bed of night iris shredding petals one by one, like the hours of darkness, 2020. Acrylic on fabric over wood panel in found vintage frame. 29 x 19 x 1/2 in.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Marc J. Lee. © Lezley Saar, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Lezley Saar, Of a bed of night iris shredding petals one by one, like the hours of darkness, 2020. Acrylic on fabric over wood panel in found vintage frame. 29 x 19 x 1/2 in.

The exhibition also includes a display edition of Tavares Strachan’s ENOCH, a passive satellite currently orbiting the earth, housing a 24-karat-gold canopic jar created in memory of senior US Air Force pilot Robert Henry Lawrence Jr (1935–1967), the first African American astronaut. Tragically, Lawrence Jr, died before he could go to space. ENOCH accomplishes this dream.

Other multimedia installations include Kahil Joseph’s video installation BLKNWS, and Ada Pinkston’s augmented reality (AR) monument honoring the life of Biddy Mason, accessible via a Snapchat platform. A Missouri transplant to California, Mason successfully sued for her freedom in 1856. Active in healthcare and education, she died one of the wealthiest Black women in the country.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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