Quilted Tales

Bisa Butler (b. 1975), The Mighty Gents (below right and detail above), 2018. Quilted and appliqued cotton, wool, and chiffon, 67x78in. (170.2x198.1cm). Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery.

How does Butler work with texture to create this portrait?

Storytelling has always been important to textile artist Bisa Butler. Growing up, she loved looking at her grandmother’s photo albums to learn about her family’s history. Today, Butler uses old photographs as inspiration for the stories she shares in her quilted portraits. The Brooklyn, New York-based artist collects traditional African fabrics rich with bright colors and geometric patterns to stitch portraits of everyday people, as in her 2018 work The Mighty Gents, below right and the close-up above.

To start creating a quilt, Butler selects a black-and-white photo of people whose narratives inspire her. “My portraits tell stories that may have been forgotten over time,” she says. The artist uses the photo as a guide to show realistic figures in casual poses.

She builds her composition by stitching together African textiles that have bright color schemes, bold patterns, and various textures. The fibers Butler includes in her work range from vintage silks and lace to mud cloth, a cotton fabric that is hand colored using natural dyes and mud.

“My stories are told in the fabrics that I choose, the textures I combine, and the colors that create a whole new composition,” Butler says. What narratives do you think of when you look at this quilt?

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