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Bisa Butler: Exploring Black Identity Through Quilt Portraiture

I saw myself mirrored in fabric and what a marvelous moment it was. Last spring at the Art Institute of Chicago, I had the opportunity to visit quilt artist Bisa Butler’s exhibition on Black portraiture. While wandering the halls of Bisa Butler’s Portraits, I found a new appreciation for textile art. Enamored by the ever-flowing tides of color behind each corner, I slowly made my way through every quilt on display. Each subject of Butler’s quilt portraiture commanded my attention; as I met every black individual’s gaze, I was consumed by waves of emotion. Embodied feelings of joy, grief, pride, and love guided me through Butler’s exploration of black identity and its history through portraiture. Through her navigation of the dynamics of texture, vibrancy, posture, and music, Butler challenged my conception of the possibilities of black portraiture. Her work has an element of fluidity and depth that, to me, created a resonating symphony of blackness. Butler’s inclusion of an interactive playlist for the exhibition echoed this sentiment. Through engaging with her work, I found myself asking critical questions on the representations of black identity: What is the significance of Black portraiture? How do we revisit black portraiture to illuminate the vibrancy and richness of black life?
Butler’s use of black portrait photography as an artistic base, cultivates a noticeable familiarity in her artwork. One of these pieces that continues to flit through my mind is titled South Side Sunday. This is Bulter’s rendition of photographer Russell Lee’s Negro boys on Easter morning. Southside, Chicago, Illinois. Recognizing the photographic roots of her rendition reaffirmed for me the beauty in the atemporality of black art. The photo was originally taken in 1941, but this timeless image has been given a new space and meaning today due to Butler. The five boys depicted in the original black and white film photo are adorned in suits, some with matching hats, and are posing on the hood of a car. They look squarely at the camera, assertive and enduring. In her quilt, she removed the original Chicago cityscape background and filled it in with orange and blue chevron fabric. No longer limited to hues of gray, the boys bloom on the tapestry in swirls of blue, pink, yellow, red, and green. These colors bring new meaning to their posture and expressions. Butler’s rendition, infused with color, thus becomes a piece bigger than its inspiration—these boys become both larger than life. Seeing the exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago cemented the fact that these boys are tethered to Chicago and its history; Butler’s art actively refuses for them to be forgotten or misplaced by history. Moreover, in this rendition, they are reasserted as resonant representations of black boyhood. Through her immortalization of familiar feelings of black pride and beauty in this quilt and others, Butler sews the past to the present.

Bisa Butler’s portraits embark on a journey to stitch together the intergenerational ties of Black identity. In a promotional video released by the Art Institute of Chicago, Butler remarked that “when people look at my works, they tell me that they feel the spirit of that person. And I’m hoping that when they look at that image, they realize that the people they pass every day are just the same as these images from the past.” Similar to her methods of layering vivid fabric to simulate the vibrancy of blackness, Butler layers the historical contexts of her subject with the contemporary context of her viewership. Despite recognizing those five boys in Southside Sunday from their infamous photo, I found myself seeing people I knew in them. On the hood of that car, I could see my younger self in my Sunday best leaning there beside my younger cousin, dressed dapper just like those boys. While retaining their individuality and historicity, the boys of Southside Sunday echoed familiar feelings of black boyhood and childhood I could recognize and relate to. Through her use of dynamic visual textures, she allows her subjects to exist in their fullness and multiplicity beyond the confines of the photo frame. Furthermore, her commitment to making the subjects of her quilts life-size reanimates them—they become timeless. This stylistic choice allows them to serve as a glimpse into their past as well as into our present as viewers. Butler emphasizes this intention stating that “when black people see my work, I’m hoping that they see reflections of themselves, like a mirror, but the self that you want to be, and the self that you really are.” Experiencing her exhibit that day, I felt this sentiment. Her dedication to convey the complexities of black pride, love, joy, defiance, and determination through a kaleidoscopic palette refuses to let viewers flatten the subjects of her portraiture. The vibrant and prideful world of blackness she centers her work around pushes her black audiences to re-imagine themselves.

Portraiture is everywhere. Even places you’d never suspect. Walking down Thayer Street you may spot the famous portrait Girl With A Pearl Earring plastered on someone’s T-Shirt. Passing by dorm common rooms you could see a self-portrait made from Expo markers. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we are constantly interacting with forms of portraiture. In our efforts to make representative configurations of ourselves through outfits, playlists, and much more, we’re engaging in portraiture. Think of it as an ongoing effort to understand ourselves, others, the world around us. I believe that my portrait lies in books—if you squint, the stacks in my room morph into a personal mosaic. My question to you is: how do you see yourself and how do you see others? What’s your portrait? Bisa Butler isn’t the only black artist pushing audiences to think critically about portraiture as well as how it relates to black identity and experience, but, in her quilts’ stark contrast from traditional forms of portraiture, she’s pushing people to look differently. So, look. You might just start to see yourself and the world around you in a completely new way.

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