In living colour
Bisa Butler’s fibre artwork reimagines forgotten portraits in a festival of vibrant hues
“I have an edge, I’m in a unique position to challenge misconceptions and prejudices,” says Bisa Butler. The African American fabric artist is keen to put the media, which she feels still shows Black people and Africa in a negative light, to rights. When she was asked why 90 per cent of Black children are born into single parent households, she questioned the source of this misinformation.
And in her work, she attempts to take back ownership of African and African American narratives, images and identity.
Butler’s mother was raised in Morocco and her Ghanaian father emigrated to the US; her work proudly celebrates this heritage. Using her grandmother’s black-and-white photos, she started out painting small portraits. Today, the images she uses are from the US’s National Archives. “Many were untitled or simply labelled ‘negro’ or ‘washer woman’.”
The negatives had never been published and the subjects never saw their photos. “They deserve better, so I’ve made them larger than life and look their best; kings and queens did that with their portraits, I feel a responsibility to do the same.”
A graduate of Howard University, where acclaimed Ethiopian-Armenian artist Alexander “Skunder“ Boghossian was her tutor, Butler credits her mother, grandmother and even her ancestors for her love of textiles: “Cloth clicks with me; I believe there’s something ancient that I’m tapping into.”
Bisa Butler is currently exhibiting at MAD museum, NYC in a group exhibition of finalists for the Burke Prize, until 12 April, madmuseum.org