The opening of Bisa Butler’s solo show took place on Saturday May 6 at Jeffrey Deitch’s downtown Manhattan gallery and it was more reflective of a fashion week happening than a traditional art opening. Youth, individualism and pride were on show not only in the work but in the attendees who spilled out through the open doors onto Wooster Street’s cobblestones. Jubilant voices resonated off the high ceilings, and friends greeted each other with hugs while a snaking line formed to get a selfie with the artist who was wearing a dress of mint green feathers paired with cowboy boots.
The New Jersey born artist credits her parents with allowing her the freedom at a young age to indulge in art while the creativity that surrounded her within the College of Fine Arts (now the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts) at her alma mater Howard University presented the opportunity for growth. In a video interview honoring Howard University shared on the artist’s instagram, she says of her years at the HBU, “I realized I could bloom here. People understood me. No one looked at my final projects perplexed.” The dean was a founding member of Africobra, the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, founded in Chicago in 1968, which also included as members many of her professors. Butler appreciated their encouragement to look at African fabrics, the color of African skin and to really study them. “That was the moment it all came together.”
She inherited fabric from her mother and grandmother who both sewed and quilted. She amassed a collection of discarded scraps: Nigerian wax fabric, batik, tie dye, Ghanian Kente cloth (from her father’s birth country), all the patterns of traditional African culture. Butler’s work has appeared in magazines from Time to Vogue but the work in the Jeffrey Deitch space makes a much more powerful impression when seen dal vivo. The studied placement of micro patches, larger panels and overlays builds to a remarkable level of detail. Just studying the workmanship of the shoes or the transparent layers manipulated to define the bone structure of a technicolor face demonstrates a virtuoso at work. The interplay of light and dark, combination of tasteful and tacky, the clashing micro and macro patterns rivals the work of fashion’s great colorist Dries Van Noten but forms a distinctive visual narrative that has gained Butler global awards and recognition. Butler’s art hangs in museums and private collections around the world and a piece sold at auction in 2021 for 75,000 dollars.
In the lead up to the show Butler had been sequestered away for a year creating a new collection of works. The title of the exhibit comes from a song by Nas: "Whose world is this? The world is yours, the world is yours!” and music infuses her entire body of work. The exhibit includes a life-size portrait of Salt-N-Pepa in their distinctive hooped earrings, bodysuits and bomber jackets, entitled “Hot, Cool, and Vicious.”
The process and meaning behind Bisa Butler’s art
Humanity and craft are at the heart of Butler’s art. Her work celebrates the anonymous faces of her ancestors who were stolen from their families and from the history books by slavery. She works from black and white photographs and then with the perspective of a painter she assembles cotton, silk, sequins, lace, netting, holographic vinyl and velvet, then patches, quilts and appliqués. Her chosen art materials are intimate and everyday. When compared to the typical artist’s supplies of toxic paint or horsehair brushes, Butler's cloth remnants and threads possess a homespun sustainability. Her portraits honor the domestic arts, that domain of women throughout history who could not even dream of entering the contemporary art market but who could exhibit their prowess and creativity around hearth and home. Her portraits are created without the use of a computer yet possess the power to rival anything AI can conjure up. Her typical large scale “canvases” are rectangles of fabric quilted with a repeat motif in a contrasting colored stitching. By hand she layers the elements of the life-size figures which have been sewn together into one piece and appliqués that onto the base. The portraits almost seem to stare eye to eye with the viewer.
“I'm sketching like somebody draws, I’m cutting like somebody who sews, I’m putting it together like somebody who paints or collages,” says Butler in a video shared on the artist’s instagram. “I use a lot of sheer layers which is what a painter does with paint, and then I sew it up again like somebody who quilts. I’m combining all these things that are in our ancestry.”
Bisa Butler The World is Yours is on show at the Jeffrey Deitch gallery, 18 Wooster St until June 30.