Q&A With Bisa Butler
The textile artist shares about her sources of inspiration, her process, and the role kinship plays in it—as well as her sewing machine, “The Beast.”
Bisa Butler with Asantewa (2020), cotton, silk, wool, and velvet quilted and appliqué, 52 x 88 x 2 in. Photo by Nonexitfiction, courtesy of the Claire Oliver Gallery.
Emily Freidenrich: Where do your pieces start from? You’ve mentioned this idea of “collective memory” in the Black community. What are the untold stories you haven’t quilted yet but want to?
Bisa Butler: Most of my artworks start with a compelling image. I store hundreds of photos on my computer of people who fascinate me. Many times it is a direct gaze, an attitude, or a feeling that emanates from the photograph. Recently I began organizing images with a specific theme because there was a story I wanted to tell. For instance, I graduated from Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, DC, that also counts Kamala Harris and Chadwick Boseman as graduates. I am putting together an exhibition of quilts based on vintage photographs from Howard. I want the wider world to understand why HBCUs graduate more Black doctors than any other universities in this country, why we call Howard the “Mecca,” and even what is a Black homecoming. Many people did not realize until Beyoncé’s Homecoming album came out how rich and unique Black campus life is.
You’ve pointed out the unwavering, direct gaze in the portrait subjects you choose. What is it about that detail that is important?
A direct gaze is provocative and transfixing. When I am researching/mining for inspirational photos, those with the direct gaze stop me in my tracks and challenge me to look back. There is also something familiarizing about the direct gaze—you feel like the subject is looking at you. It becomes a two-way observation, more like a window pane than a flat two-dimensional photo. The subject seems to look at you through space and time, as you do the same. I like that the playing field evens out in this sort of communication—time, money, even living versus long dead seem not to matter anymore.
Many photos were taken of Frederick Douglass where he is staring penetratingly at the photographer. His raw determination is palpable—and deliberate. During his time, Black people were not supposed to look white people directly in the eyes, but Frederick Douglass made sure he did so—and often. His photos refuted stereotypes that Black people were inferior, ignorant, or timid. After researching him and seeing so many of his cartes de visite, I too want my subjects to demand respect with direct gazes. If a particular subject is not looking at the viewer, I will change it so that they are.
What are some recent sources or archives for reference photographs that you use?
I recently was given access to the photos from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and that was like heaven to me. There are so many high-quality, beautiful vintage photos in their archive. I follow many individual archivists, historic databases like Getty, and university collections as well.
Readers of American Craft love reading about the nuts and bolts of the craft process. Can you share a few details about yours?
I start every new artwork by finding a photograph that inspires me and excites my imagination. I then create a sketch based off of the photo. I’ve always been very good at drawing, but I try to focus on the accuracy of expression rather than photo realness. My drawing is more like a contour line drawing that helps me decide what shapes I need to cut. I always use a black-and-white photo so that my mind can substitute with colors that call to me instead of what was actually there. When I used to teach, I made sure my students studied the gray scale and knew how to mix at least 36 colors. I am a firm believer in education, and I think many artists will find their work improves if they understand simple techniques.
I use my sketch like a dressmaker would, cutting out fabric in the same size and shape of whatever I have drawn. I choose my fabrics based on what I want to communicate with color and pattern. I use color theory heavily and borrow from the philosophy that certain colors make us feel different emotions—for instance, shades of blue can make us feel calm or somber. I am also very particular about my patterns because in Africa each pattern has a specific name, folktale, or saying to go with it. Some fabrics have names like “My Husband Is Fat and Rich,” or “My Lover Is Young and Handsome,” or even “Big Lips.” The meanings can be admonishing, unifying, or even funny.
Tell me about The Beast! What has this machine allowed you to do that you couldn’t before? Any other great tools or materials that are important to you?
The Beast is my long-arm sewing machine! She is fundamentally the same as a standard sewing machine except for much bigger, with a much more powerful engine. The Beast has allowed me to be able to work as big as I want, and for as long as I want to. The difference between my machine and a standard machine is like a mountain bike compared to a Harley Davidson motorcycle. I can sew free-handed for hours and create any designs that I can think up.
I always need many pairs of sharp precision scissors, strong thread, and high-quality fabrics.
Any works-in-progress or upcoming projects you can talk about that excite you?
I have an exhibit that is currently up at the Art Institute of Chicago that closes in September. I am looking forward to visiting it next month with my family. I am also preparing for the long-awaited return of the art fairs! I will be exhibiting at Expo Chicago, and at the “Untitled, Art” fair during Miami Art Week. I have new pieces that I can’t wait to debut.
The Fall 2021 issue of American Craft focuses on the theme of “Kinship” and the ways that creative process and craft can connect us to one another and to past or future kin. Your entire practice from beginning to end incorporates this idea. Do you have any additional thoughts on this idea of “kinship” when it comes to your work?
I do not know if my ancestors were quilters, weavers, or any particular types of skilled craftspeople because the records of my enslaved ancestors were not written down. Even though I don’t have any evidence of a familial connection, the first moment I began working with cloth I knew something felt right. I am able to express myself through cloth and thread just like so many womenfolk have for hundreds of years. I think of myself as a woman who may have been a Nigerian wax print designer in the days before colonialism; I may have been an enslaved quilter working on a plantation. I am myself now a full-time quilt artist, and hopefully there are more versions of women working in cloth in the future, doing things I cannot imagine. There is a throughline, a kinship connecting me to the past and to the future, with my own daughters and the new artists who are coming up behind me.
I was really struck by the caretaking element to the origins of your quilting practice. Your first portrait quilt was a gift for your ill grandmother. You’ve also referred to quilts as (traditionally) a medium of comfort. Do you think that kind of caretaking, even healing, is part of this overall approach that you bring to each portrait quilt’s story?
I didn’t really think of my own quilting as caretaking before you mentioned it, but that does ring true to me. I was the youngest in my household and everyone always took care of me. My full name is Mailissa, and when I was born, my older sister by 11 months couldn’t pronounce my name. Everyone called me Baby Mailissa, which she shortened to “Ba-Bisa” and then Bisa. My sister Souki always looked out for me—and so did the rest of my family.
My first quilt was my way of showing my grandmother that I recognized all that she had done for me, and that I was grateful for her. I wanted to give something back to someone who had given everything. The quilt also soothed her, because she was very fragile at the time, and she would lay it over her legs in tissue paper so she could show anyone who came to visit her what I had done.
Now when I make quilts, I have transferred that admiration for my grandmother to all of the elders captured in photographs. I see them as my extended Black family and I want to do right by them. What has been lost in our country many times is the story—the history of Black folk. The healing I want to do is to restore Black stories that have been omitted from the American narrative. Hopefully my quilts can heal some of the wounds of historical neglect.
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