Museum  February 15, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Bisa Butler on the Magic of Quilting

Courtesy Gordon Parks Foundation

Installation view, Bisa Butler: Materfamilias, Gordon Parks Foundation. Works: Praise God, 2014, Wedding Portrait, 2001, Colored Entrance (after Department Store, Mobile, Alabama by Gordon Parks, 1956), 2023

The Gordon Parks Foundation recently opened Bisa Butler: Materfamilias, an exhibition of new textile based works by Bisa Butler. This show, the culmination of Butler’s 2022 Gordon Parks Foundation Fellowship, fuses Butler’s quilt-making practice with the photography of Gordon Parks. On the occasion of her exhibition, which is open until April 14th, Art & Object spoke to the artist on her practice, relationship to Parks, her grandmother, and vibrant colors.

Courtesy Gordon Parks Foundation

Colored Entrance (after Department Store, Mobile, Alabama by Gordon Parks, 1956), 2023, Cotton, silk, wool, velvet, and lace, quilted and appliquéd

Art & Object (A&O): So you were trained as a painter and then shifted to making quilts when you went for your graduate degree. What prompted that shift? Does your background as a painter help your quilt making?

Bisa Butler (BB): Absolutely. I chose painting because, coming straight out of high school I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I had no clue what that would entail. So I thought, I’ll be a painter, that will be good. But I really struggled to find my own voice in painting, which is a crux for every artist. 

After about a year, I thought about teaching, so I went back to school at Montclair State, and it was there that I sewed my first quilt. I don’t come from a quilting background. My grandmother and mother sewed because they loved fashion, and they gave me all the remnants of their pieces, which I used for quilting. I used silk, chiffon, lace, gaberdine, wool. I still use these today, whereas a typical quilt would be made of cotton.

I first made a quilted portrait of my grandmother. We both loved it, and it felt so right. I still make portraits, not just of my family and friends, but of people who remind me of people I know, typically people of the African American community, or a portrait of a famous figure. And I still use those garment fabrics because I like the way they look when I layer them. It’s kind of like painting, using light, shadow, contour, and rendering, but with fabric.

Collection of The Gordon Parks Foundation

Gordon Parks (1912–2006), Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956, Archival pigment print 

A&O: I see that in a lot of your works, especially in the faces of the characters you portray

BB: To make those, I block out a base, just like a painter would. I avoid adding white to make the colors more vibrant, just like when I was painting. My professors used to call it the Kool-Aid colors; they would be cool, for the cool kids, not the colors. 

In the 60s, their color palettes were derived from what cool, Black youth were wearing. Colors that were accessible for everyone, their paintings were for the people. And this entire philosophy is part of the AFRICobra art group, which was a group that worked to be the visual art of the Black Panther mentality. This art is not just to look nice, this art is a tool to spread awareness that Black is beautiful and Black people should have access to the art community, and feel worthwhile when looking at art

These are concepts from the 60s, but you’ll still see this aesthetic in my work. And the reason why I create art is still the same: I want my art to stand for something, and to do something to help Black people, to show what a real Black person is like.

A&O: Does your work seek to challenge societal norms, by giving Black women the spotlight? 

BB: This show, Materfamilias is for Black women. Society – they can catch up or not. I don’t start my artwork thinking about what other people think. I think about myself, my mother, my grandmother, my aunt, my friends. And that’s what the portraits are of, and who they were made for. So yes, I guess my work can be a challenge to society, in a way.

Courtesy Gordon Parks Foundation

To Daddy, on the occasion of your 25th anniversary, 2015, Cotton, silk, wool, and photo transfers, appliquéd and quilted

A&O: What other artists do you look to for inspiration?

BB: I work a lot with photographers. I can’t work without a photograph - it’s every inspiration to me. I have access to Gordon Parks’ archive through my fellowship. I have also been working with a photographer, Janette Beckman, who took a lot of early punk and hip hop photos. I love Faith Ringgold, who is the queen of all quilters - Black or white. And my latest obsessions are Dawoud Bey and Nina Chanel Abney.

A&O: Let’s talk about your featured quilt, which is based on Gordon Parks’ photograph, Department Store, Mobile, Alabama. What about this photograph was so inspiring? 

BB: Gordon Parks has a way of creating photographs that look like romantic interludes. When you look deeper, you see that its not a romantic scene, it’s just the way he handles light. I was attracted to his Segregation series that he did for Life magazine. They were color plates that were shot in 1966, which were softer and more gentle. These are photos of segregated Mobile, Alabama. He was playing with the irony, outrage, and ridiculousness of segregation.

The piece that drew me in, was Department Store, Mobile, Alabama. For me as a mother, I think about the conflict with daughters. I think about what it must have felt like for her. This was her niece. Had this little girl ever been to a formal theater before? Does the aunt now have to decide if she should bring her into the colored entrance, or should they skip it all together? Do they expose her to the evils of racism, segregation, subjegation, discrimination? All of those things, she would seemingly be protected from, at home. Or maybe today is the day you have to explain this to her, that some people don’t believe she is worthy of going in front. So it was the beauty of it: the woman, girl, colors, clothing, the elegance. To me, she’s the height of elegance, paired with the horror of the conflict at hand.

Courtesy Gordon Parks Foundation

Keresse and Lyric, 2013, Cotton, silk, and lace, appliquéd and quilted, Collection of James and Keresse Dorcely

A&O: Is this piece what kicked it off for this exhibition, Materfamilias?

BB: I wanted the challenge of trying to tackle such a huge subject, but paring it down to get the essential message. I interpreted this image as in one direction by the theater door as going backwards toward racism, and on the right, I used a light orange floral fabric to represent promise. Where Parks had the woman and child looking toward the right, I felt that was the way toward salvation, freedom, quality, equitable society. Let's not go back to what America was, let's move forward into a place that we have not yet even reached to this day. And I wanted to reinforce that idea with the fabrics I chose for them. For example, the fabrics on the little girl are lighter – there are lollipops, spinning tops, and flowers on her. As a child, I wanted her to have fun things, she can deal with adult matters later. 

A&O: How has this fellowship helped you expand your career and practice? 

BB: This fellowship has been great. The access to his archive has been unbelievable, allowing me to see aspects of American life that I've heard about read about, but did not live through. It’s been great to things through Parks eyes. It’s also be great to be a part of this fellowship group of amazing artists. It means something to me to be connected to other artists whose work is relevant, purposeful, and deliberate. 

Bis Butler has a show opening May 6 at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in NYC. She is also preparing for a museum exhibition in 2025.

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