Hyperallergic writes on artist Bisa Butler:
Bisa Butler has a great name; it has almost a rock star quality. But she wasn’t born with it. Mailissa Veronica Yamba grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of a Ghanian-born university president (at Essex County College in Newark) and a French teacher from New Orleans. She graduated from Columbia High School in 1991, married, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in painting and art education, and taught high school art for a decade while raising her children.
The story will sound familiar to many women artists. However, Butler has recently emerged as a significant art-world presence, with her first solo museum exhibition, Bisa Butler: Portraits, currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago. (The exhibition opened in 2020 at the Katonah Museum of Art in upstate New York.) Butler gained success, quite remarkably, through the often-marginalized medium of quilting. Yet, what might seem like an overnight success is not. Butler had been showing work for 20 years with other African American quilt artists under the auspices of the curator, writer, and artist Carolyn Mazloomi. Butler was known in these circles, but it was not until three years ago that she surmounted biases in the contemporary art world against both people of color and fiber arts.
Butler’s breakthrough happened in 2018 at an art fair, Expo Chicago. Her work, presented by Claire Oliver Gallery, sold out during the first hour of the preview. I remember running into friends at the fair who asked breathlessly, “Did you see those quilts?” When Erica Warren, the textile curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, first saw the work at Expo, she was “transfixed and astonished.” “When the works came into my view in the crowded exhibition hall,” she told me by email, “there were a few particulars that really grabbed my attention, including the vibrant colors and patterns, the discerning gazes of the portraits’ subjects, and the balance and dynamism of the figural arrangements.” The Art Institute of Chicago subsequently acquired a major work, “The Safety Patrol” (2018).
Butler’s work draws on the rich history of African American art: Her legacy lies with enslaved women creating embroidered quilts from scraps, her grandmother’s and mother’s needlework, Romare Bearden’s pioneering collages, AfriCOBRA’s self-fashioned aesthetics of the African Diaspora, James Van Der Zee’s studio photographs of elegant Black New Yorkers during the Harlem Renaissance, and activist artists — for instance, Faith Ringgold, whose monumental, Guernica-inspired vision of a race riot, “American People Series #20: Die,” (1967), was set in conversation with Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) when the renovated Museum of Modern Art opened in 2019. It was the Gee’s Bend quilts, however, in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002, that inspired Butler, then a graduate student, to work with fabric.