Gallery  May 18, 2023  Megan D Robinson

Bisa Butler: The World Is Yours

Genevieve Hanson

detail, Bisa Butler, Genevieve Hanson for the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery.


Fabric artist Bisa Butler, whose vibrant quilted appliqué portraits have been featured on the covers of Time, Essence, and The New York Times Magazine, currently has a new solo exhibition, The World Is Yours, at New York’s Jeffrey Deitch Gallery. This is Butler’s first solo exhibition in New York since the lockdown, and she considers it a homecoming. Opening night drew a beautifully dressed, enthusiastic crowd, including many family members who trekked distances to attend. Butler’s fans range from tiny preschoolers to older people who have survived many trying times; she was thrilled to be surrounded by art lovers from so many different walks of life and generations. “Opening night was everything that I could’ve hoped for,” she says, adding “I felt like I was at a New Orleans Second Line parade because we shut down Wooster Street for a time.” Attendees dressed up in an explosion of color, and her husband hired the Shabazz High School Marching Band.

Genevieve Hanson for the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery

Bisa Butler, You're All I Need, work based off of a photo by Leon Borensztein.

Music frequently influences Butler’s work. Sharing studio space with her hip-hop DJ husband makes music a regular part of her creative space. They have, in fact, collaborated on mixtapes corresponding with her exhibitions for the last few years. During the early pandemic, Nas’ song, The World Is Yours seemed particularly resonant. “It's a really positive song,” she explains, addressing the ills that plague city life while celebrating brotherhood, personhood, and empowerment. With her exhibition title, Butler wanted to remind people of “the beautiful sentiment that this world belongs to all of us. We have to treat each other well. We have to respect each other. And actually love our fellow human beings. Watching the news can feel pretty hopeless. But the power is within us to recreate or create our own reality. To not accept people telling us we don't have that power. We all do.”

In much of her previous work, Butler took inspiration from older photographs or daguerreotypes. The World Is Yours showcases a new body of work inspired by contemporary portraits from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. “During the pandemic,” Butler says, “I started reflecting on the world now instead of the world in the past. This was also the first time that I started interacting with photographers online.” The exhibition includes some of her first collaborative pieces―she worked with a number of contemporary photographers, including Gordon Parks and Janette Beckman.

Janette Beckman

Celebration on the opening day of Bisa Butler: The World Is Yours, at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery.

Butler creates portraits of Black people she views as heroes, people she sees “as courageous, brave or beautiful.” Butler feels passionate about showcasing Black people’s power and grace, especially those “ordinary people” from humble beginnings and straightened circumstances, whom society typically does not expect to be radiant, dazzling style icons.

A case in point is You're All I Need, inspired by the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell song, and a photograph by Leon A. Borensztein, who specializes in lower middle class and working class portraiture, providing a platform for his subjects to, as Butler says, “express their individuality―their own flyness, their own swag, their own love.” This couple from the 70s is immaculately stylish. “And the affection between them is a beautiful thing to see,” Butler says, proof “that love persists.”

Paul Chinnery

Bisa Butler on the opening day of her exhibition, The World Is Yours, at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery.

Butler recognizes fabric choices can express a lot about “how we feel about ourselves, how we want to be interpreted, how we want to be received.” When she creates a portrait of a Black little girl with hair made of silk French lace flowers, the fabric choice is very deliberate― Butler’s saying “I believe her hair is valuable and delicate and beautiful, just like this expensive lace fabric.” 

 Fabric textures and colors also help establish the time period; each era had a dominant color palette, as well as popular patterns and textures. For her late 20th-century portraits, Butler played with dayglo neon, iridescent vinyl, sequins, and metallic lamé. She always works with a base of African printed fabric, to honor her and her subjects’ heritages. Sold in marketplaces all over Africa, these prints are given evocative, allegorical names. One of Butler’s favorites is called "Children Are Worth More Than Gold." Another print, featuring leaping horses, is called “I Run Faster Than My Enemies.” Butler feels that fabric “creates visual talismans and protections” against hatred and bigamy and racism and marginalization. 

The World Is Yours runs through June 30th.

For more information, visit


About the Author

Megan D Robinson

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

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