Bisa Butler

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Bisa Butler
Alma materHoward University
Montclair State University
Known forFiber art, quilt art

Bisa Butler (born Mailissa Yamba Butler in 1973) is an American fiber artist who has created a new genre of quilting that has transformed the medium.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8] Although quilting has long been considered a craft, her interdisciplinary methods -- which create quilts that look like paintings -- have catapulted quilting into the field of fine art.[9][2][4][5][7] She is known for her vibrant, quilted portraits celebrating Black life, portraying both everyday people and notable historical figures.[10][11] Her works now count among the permanent collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Art Institute of Chicago, and about a dozen other art museums nationwide.[10][12] She has also exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the Epcot Center, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and many other venues.[7][13][14][12] In 2020, she was commissioned to quilt cover images for Time magazine, including the "Person of the Year" issue and its "100 Women of the Year" issue.[15][16][17][18] With a multi-year wait list for private commissions, one of Butler's quilts sold at auction in 2021 for $75,000 USD.[17][19]

Early life[edit]

Bisa Butler, born Mailissa Yamba Butler, was born in Orange, New Jersey, grew up in South Orange, and graduated from Columbia High School in 1991.[20][21] Her mother is a French teacher from New Orleans and her father, a college president, was born in Ghana.[11] The youngest child in her family, Butler had three siblings.[21] Her interest in art can be traced back to preschool; she won an art competition when she was four years old.[21]

Butler majored in fine art and graduated cum laude from Howard University, where she studied the work of Romare Bearden, attended lectures by prominent black artists such as Lois Mailou Jones, and studied under lecturers such as Elizabeth Catlett, Jeff Donaldson, and Ernie Barnes.[22] Her undergraduate degree was in painting, but she has stated that she never really connected with the medium.[23] She did start working with fabric, making collages on canvas.[21]

Butler went on to complete a master's degree in art education from Montclair State University in 2004.[24] There, she took a Fiber Art class that inspired her choice of quilting as an artistic medium. She said in an interview, "As a child, I was always watching my mother and grandmother sew, and they taught me. After that class, I made a quilt for my grandmother on her deathbed, and I have been quilting ever since."[14] When she replicated her grandmother's wedding photo in quilt form, a piece entitled "Francis and Violette" for a final project, both she and her professor recognized that she had created an entirely new form of quilting.[3][25][2]

Along with being a practicing artist, Butler taught art in the Newark Public Schools for over a decade.[14][11][10] She now lives and works in West Orange, New Jersey.[11][26]


Don't Tread on Me, God Damn, Let's Go! - The Harlem Hellfighters (2021) by Bisa Butler at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC in 2022

Through her quilts, Butler aims to “tell stories that may have been forgotten over time.”[27] She often uses kente cloth and African wax printed fabrics in her quilts, so her subjects are "adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestor."[11][12]

Butler's quilts both heavily incorporate African textiles a well as expand on a rich African American quilting tradition.[10] She explains in her artist statement: "African Americans have been quilting since we were brought to this country and needed to keep warm. Enslaved people were not given large pieces of fabric and had to make do with the scraps of cloth that were left after clothing wore out. From these scraps the African American quilt aesthetic came into being....My own pieces are reminiscent of this tradition, but I use African fabrics from my father’s homeland of Ghana, batiks from Nigeria, and prints from South Africa."[12] She has also been inspired by the figurative textile works of Faith Ringgold.[22]

Butler typically works in bright jewel tones rather than representational colors to depict skin tone.[26] Color serves to convey the emotions of the individuals in her quilts rather than their actual complexions.[28] While at Howard, Butler was mentored by members of AfriCOBRA. The artist collective's bright, colorful aesthetic and aim to create positive representations of Black Americans can be found in Butler's body of work, as well.[11]

Her quilts often feature portraits of famous figures in Black history, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jackie Robinson, Frederick Douglass, and Josephine Baker. She uses a variety of patterned fabrics, which she carefully selects to reflect the subject's life, sometimes using clothing worn by the subject. Her portrait of Nina Simone, for example, is made of cotton, silk, velvet, and netting, while that of Jean-Michel Basquiat is made of leather, cotton, and vintage denim.[13]

Along with her portraits of notable figures, Butler also creates pieces featuring everyday, unknown African American subjects that she bases on found photographs.[10] She describes her fascination for her nameless subjects' unknown stories: "I feel these people; I know these stories because I have grown up with them my whole life."[12] She strives "to bring as many of these unnamed peoples photos to the forefront" so "people will see these ordinary folks as deserving of a spotlight too."[23]

Her pieces are done in life scale in order "to invite the viewer to engage in dialogue--most figures look the viewers directly in their eyes."[12]

Her work, Harlem Hellfighters, was acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of the Renwick Gallery's 50th Anniversary Campaign.[29]

Popular appearances[edit]

By 2019, Butler already had a waiting list for commissioned pieces that she estimated to be several years long.[3] This was before her first solo museum exhibit and media attention catapulted her to celebrity among the general public. Three of Butler's quilts sold at auction in 2021, for between $37,500 USD and $75,000 USD.[8][19] The $75,000 sale price for Nandi and Natalie (Friends) (2007) was almost eight times the anticipated value.[8][12] At least one personal collector has loaned pieces by Butler to museums for limited-time exhibits.[30]

She has also worked on commission to create a number of magazine covers, including the Fall 2020 cover of Juxtapoz, the March 2020 cover of Time Magazine honoring Wangari Maathai, the 2020 Time magazine "Person of the Year" image of Porche Bennett-Bey and the May/June 2021 edition of Essence magazine.[8][31][32] Tarana Burke's memoir sports a cover image quilted by Butler.[10][33] Additionally, Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN)’s featured Butler's work in its “Juneteenth Artist Showcase.”[8]


She has exhibited widely. In 2018 she exhibited at EXPO Chicago and was praised in Newcity[34] and the Chicago Reader.[35] In February 2019 her work was included along with that of Romare Bearden in The Art of Jazz, a Black History Month exhibition in Morristown, New Jersey.[36] Butler's quilts are featured in art books such as Journey of Hope: Quilts Inspired by President Barack Obama (2010)[37] and Collaborations: Two Decades of African American Art : Hearne Fine Art 1988-2008 (2008),[38] and on websites such as Blavity[13] and Colossal.[26] In 2019, she was a finalist for the Museum of Art and Design's Burke Prize.[32][39] Butler's first solo museum exhibition Bisa Butler: Portraits was co-organized between the Art Institute of Chicago and the Katonah Museum of Art. It was scheduled to first open at the Katonah Museum of Art from March 15 to June 14, 2020; however, after temporarily closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition was extended to October 4, 2020.[40][41]

Public collections[edit]

Solo exhibitions[edit]

  • Essex County College, Newark, NJ - 2003[44]
  • Essex County College, Newark, NJ - 2004
  • Organic Soul, NJ - 2006
  • Home of Lonnie Austin show, solo exhibit - 2008
  • Astahs Fine Art Gallery, Maplewood, NJ - 2008
  • Quilt Me A Story, Bloomfield College, NJ - 2008
  • Morristown Courthouse, Morristown, NJ - 2015
  • Hearne fine art, Faces in Man Places - 2015
  • NEWARK Academy, Livingston, NJ - 2015
  • Domareki Gallery, Maplewood, NJ - 2015
  • Firehouse Gallery, Valley Arts, Orange, NJ - 2015
  • Richard Beavers Art Gallery, Brooklyn, NY - 2016
  • The Lawrence Art Center, Lawrence, KS - 2017[44]
  • "The Storm, The Whirlwind & The Earthquake" Claire Oliver Gallery, New York, NY - 2020[51]
  • Bisa Butler, Katonah Museum of Art, NY - 2020[52]
  • Bisa Butler, Art Institute of Chicago, IL - 2020 - 2021[53]


  1. ^ "Artist Bisa Butler on creating new narratives through "portrait quilts". CBS This Morning. September 4, 2021. Retrieved 2022/01/08.
  2. ^ a b c Scott, Chadd. "Bisa Butler Exhibition At Art Institute Of Chicago Headlines National Recognition Of Quilting". Forbes. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  3. ^ a b c Donker, Ellen (2019-08-19). "STORIES WORTH A THOUSAND STITCHES". Matters Magazine. Archived from the original on 2019-10-01. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  4. ^ a b "Bisa Butler's Quilts Feature Designs So Realistic That They're Compared To Paintings". Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  5. ^ a b "BISA BUTLER". Neue Luxury. Oct 27, 2020. Archived from the original on 2021-01-15.
  6. ^ Beach, Charlotte (2021-09-21). "Inside the Magical, Technicolor World of Bisa Butler and Her Revolutionary Quilts". PRINT Magazine. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  7. ^ a b c "Bisa Butler quilts history and links memories at Art Institute of Chicago". Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Felsberg, Kaylie (2021-08-20). "Bisa Butler's Quilted, Jewel-Toned Portraits Are Receiving Universal Acclaim". Artsy. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  9. ^ Loos, Ted (2020-10-21). "From 2 Artists, 2 Ways to Tell Stories of Black America". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  10. ^ a b c d e f "Positively Black: Bisa Butler's 'The Warmth of Other Suns'". NBC New York. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Liz Logan, "Artist Bisa Butler Stitches Together the African American Experience," Smithsonian, July 24, 2020.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g "Sale 2565 - Lot 198: Bisa Butler (1973 - ) Nandi and Natalie (Friends)". Swann Auction Galleries. April 22, 2021. Retrieved January 15, 2022.
  13. ^ a b c "These gorgeous quilts celebrating black life will blow your mind". Blavity. February 23, 2017.
  14. ^ a b c "Bisa Butler: Artist Bio". Black Prism.
  15. ^ Mark, Westall (2020-12-21). "Bisa Butler's Portrait of Porche Bennet-Bay TIME Magazine's Guardian of the Year". FAD Magazine. Archived from the original on 2021-01-21. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  16. ^ D.W., Pine (December 10, 2020). "The Story Behind TIME's 2020 Person of the Year Covers". Time. Archived from the original on 2020-12-11. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  17. ^ a b "TIME magazine designs 100 covers for its women of the year project". designboom | architecture & design magazine. 2020-03-06. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  18. ^ Karl, Vick (March 5, 2020). "Wangari Maathai: 100 Women of the Year". Time. Archived from the original on 2020-03-06. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  19. ^ a b "Bisa Butler | 3 Artworks at Auction | MutualArt". Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  20. ^ "Bisa Butler: Quilt Artist Extraordinaire". The Village Green. March 12, 2015.
  21. ^ a b c d "The Boss - Bisa Butler". Google Arts & Culture. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  22. ^ a b Espinosa, Natalie (2020-08-03). "Artist Spotlight: Bisa Butler in Conversation". American Federation of Arts. Retrieved 2020-08-11.
  23. ^ a b Nafziger, Christina. "Interview with Bisa Butler". Archived from the original on 2020-11-17.
  24. ^ "'The People Could Fly: Royalty Without the Riches,' an Exhibition of the Quilts of Bisa Butler". The Brooklyn Reader. January 12, 2016.
  25. ^ "Textile artist Bisa Butler stitches portraits in patchwork". Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  26. ^ a b c "Colorful Quilts by Bisa Butler use African Fabrics to Form Nuanced Portraits". Colossal. February 21, 2019.
  27. ^ "Colorful Portrait Quilts by Bisa Butler Made Out of African Fabric".
  28. ^ Moreira-Brown, Caira (March 18, 2020). "A Colorful Affirmation: In Conversation with Bisa Butler". FAD Magazine. Archived from the original on 2020-09-18.
  29. ^ Savig, Mary; Atkinson, Nora; Montiel, Anya (2022). This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World. Washington, DC: Smithsonian American Art Museum. pp. 228–238. ISBN 9781913875268.
  30. ^ Lesser, Casey (2021-04-29). "Inside Pete Scantland's Stunning Collection of Works by Today's Leading Artists". Artsy. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  31. ^ "Bisa Butler Quilt Illustrates May/June Cover of Essence Magazine Dedicated to 'Year That Changed the World'". Culture Type. 2021-04-22. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  32. ^ a b "Toledo Museum of Art acquires major new work by contemporary artist Bisa Butler". Sentinel-Tribune. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  33. ^ Haber, Leigh (2021-03-29). "Exclusive: Tarana Burke Reveals the Cover of Her Memoir, "Unbound"". Oprah Daily. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  34. ^ "EXPO Chicago 2018: Critic's Picks". Newcity. October 2, 2018.
  35. ^ "Expo Chicago 2018: See it now". Chicago Reader. September 29, 2018.
  36. ^ "'The Art of Jazz' celebrates Black History Month, and several causes, in Morristown". Morristown Green. February 23, 2019.
  37. ^ Mazloomi, Carolyn L. (2010). Journey of Hope: Quilts Inspired by President Barack Obama. Voyageur Press. pp. 36–40. ISBN 9780760339350.
  38. ^ Hearne, Archie, III (2008). Collaborations: Two Decades of African American Art : Hearne Fine Art 1988-2008. University of Arkansas Press. pp. 10–11. ISBN 9781607251309.
  39. ^ "Burke Prize 2019". Museum of Art and Design. Retrieved May 24, 2020.
  40. ^ "Exhibitions,", retrieved July 26, 2020.
  41. ^ "Katonah Museum of Art to Reopen July 26," TAPinto, July 17, 2020.
  42. ^ "Bisa Butler is Having a Moment". Art & Object. Retrieved 2020-08-11.
  43. ^ "Bisa Butler". The Art Institute of Chicago. Retrieved 2020-08-11.
  44. ^ a b c d Claire Oliver Gallery (August 11, 2020). "Bisa Butler". Archived from the original on 2021-11-17.
  45. ^ "Orlando Museum of Art Announces its 2018-2019 Season". Retrieved 2020-08-11.
  46. ^ "A Man's Worth". Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. 2020-03-18. Retrieved 2020-08-11.
  47. ^ "Broom Jumpers | Mount Holyoke College Art Museum". 16 January 2020. Retrieved 2020-08-11.
  48. ^ "Kindred". Retrieved 2020-08-11.
  49. ^ "Dress Up, Speak Up: Regalia and Resistance". 21c Museum Hotels. Retrieved 2020-08-11.
  50. ^ "Toledo Museum of Art acquires major new work by contemporary artist Bisa Butler". The Toledo Museum of Art. 2020-07-02. Retrieved 2020-08-11.
  51. ^ "Bisa Butler: The Storm, the Whirlwind and the Earthquake". Claire Oliver Gallery. Retrieved 2020-08-11.
  52. ^ "Katonah Museum of Art to Present the First Museum Exhibition of Artist Bisa Butler | ArtsWestchester". 2019-08-04. Retrieved 2020-08-11.
  53. ^ "Bisa Butler: Portraits". The Art Institute of Chicago. Retrieved 2020-08-11.

External links[edit]