Claire Oliver Gallery opens its doors to the debut solo exhibition by artist Bisa Butler: The Storm, the Whirlwind and the Earthquake on view February 29 – April 25, 2020. Butler’s textile portraits of people of color are created from layers of brightly colored fabrics with a multiplicity of meanings. Butler’s composite characters are inspired by historical photography; the resulting images are rendered life-sized with viewers often engaging the subjects eye to eye.
“I create portraits of people that include clues of their inner thoughts, their heritage, their actual emotions, and even their future,” states Butler. “I represent all of my figures with dignity and regal opulence because that is my actual perspective of humanity. I use West African wax printed fabric, kente cloth, and Dutch wax prints to communicate that all of my figures are of African descent and have a long and rich history behind them. I choose bright technicolor cloth to represent our skin because these colors are how African Americans refer to our complexions.”
Butler’s recent works were inspired by vintage photographs of African Americans taken during World War II by the U.S. Government Farm Securities Administration. This recently digitized archive offers a rich pictorial record of American life between 1935-1944, but were left undeveloped for decades and many of the subjects remain anonymous. Butler has transformed these unknown figures into composite characters with vibrant inner lives and identities and restoring their collective histories.
The Storm, the Whirlwind and the Earthquake references a famous quotation from a July 4, 1852 speech by Frederick Douglass rebuking the nation for celebrating freedom during a time of slavery: “It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”
Butler’s life-sized quilted works should also be contextualized within the reappropriation of traditional crafts by feminist artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Shaprio. These works likewise challenge the historical division between textiles and fine art. Butler employs traditional modalities of creating works as an intentional and celebratory act informed by the tradition of quilting and African American women using the scraps of fabric that were available to them to create objects of warmth and comfort. She further recontextualizes the practice of quilting from its utilitarian roots to the creation of rich visual storytelling that combines painterly colors and forms.
“I hope people view my work and see the expressions of joy, the vibrancy of colors , and the quiet dignity of my portraits. All of my pieces are done in life scale to invite the viewer to engage in a dialogue—most figures look the viewers directly in their eyes,” states Butler. “I am inviting a reimagining and a contemporary dialogue about age old issues, still problematic in our culture, through the comforting, embracing medium of the quilt. I am expressing what I believe is the equal value of all humans.”
Bisa Butler will be the subject of two solo exhibitions this year “Bisa Butler: Portraits” March 15 – June 14 2020 at the Katonah Museum of Art, New York and at the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois September 5, 2020 – January 24 2021. Her work will also be featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, October 11, 2020 – January 18, 2021. Her work is included in the permanent collections of many museums and institutions including The Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Art Boston, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Kemper Museum of Art, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Mount Holyoke Museum of Art and other important public and private collections.
Bisa Butler: The Storm, the Whirlwind and the Earthquake will be on view through April 25, 2020 at Claire Oliver Gallery, 2288 Adam Clayton Blvd. Jr. between 134th/135th Streets in Harlem. Opening Reception to be held on Saturday, February 29 from 6-8pm.
Read more About Bisa Butler and the current exhibition at Claire Oliver Gallery in the March issue of VOGUE.
We can’t close without mentioning that Bisa Butler was invited to design a cover for TIME Magazine ‘100 Women of the Year.‘ Her cover, a fiber image of Wangari Maathai, using African Dutch-wax cottons, silk, and velvet quilted and appliquéd for her portrait of the Green Belt Movement founder and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.