Art & Museums

Review: Bisa Butler: Portraits Are Brilliantly Complex and Emotive

Bisa Butler: Portraits. Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: Marielle Bokor

It felt like no coincidence that I found myself in the Art Institute’s Bisa Butler exhibit the same day I had wandered through Monet and Chicago. To view Butler’s amazing portraits is to see the same sort of groundbreaking art that people were recognizing when Monet and his counterparts came on the scene with impressionism, and her mastery of color and light in fabric echo that of the Parisian prodigy, with an added understanding and reflection of an individual as their own landscape of light and life. To put it literally and figuratively—Butler’s works are brilliant—in color, in context and in person, when you’re standing in front of them. 

If you’re not familiar with this incredible artist, her story is an interesting one. At Howard University, Butler studied painting, under the tutelage of a collective known as AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), some of whom were professors and one served as Dean of Fine Arts there. Embracing Howard’s culture, AfriCOBRA intensified her desire to show her people in her work, and to embrace some of the commune’s approaches to authentic art—including doing away with things like lightening a scene in a painting with white or working from a white canvas and instead embracing vibrant color and blackness. Butler would go on to Montclair State University to get her Master’s and take to education, working as a high school art teacher. Quilting was almost a fluke, taking root for her after a fiber arts class during her Master’s program, when her grandmother got sick and she made a quilt based on a vintage photo of them. 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 2019. Minneapolis Institute of Art; Promised gift on long-term loan from a private collection. Photo by Margaret Fox. © Bisa Butler

Bisa Butler: Portraits is the artist’s first solo museum exhibit, and includes more than 20 of her works. Like Monet and Chicago, Portraits opened under Covid restrictions and like that exhibit, this one is not to be missed. Butler’s portraits are the sort that stop you in your tracks, not just because of their grand scale in quilt, or the bold colors, but because of the intimacy with her subjects and the intense beauty of the layering to convey mood, tone and the beauty of the subjects as they are. 

Though quilting didn’t start out as Butler’s medium, it holds a lot of meaning for her, as an African American and Ghanian tradition representing her heritage, and she takes great care in everything from fabric choice to symbolism, adding layers of meaning with each layer of fabric applied, and before they’re even chosen, as Butler also carefully chooses photos with great significance as the base of each project. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’” source image of three women on the steps at Atlanta College in 1900 was originally featured in W.E.B. Du Bois’ exhibition at the World’s Fair in Paris, and was something Butler states she used specifically to illustrate that black women can be educated and hold advanced degrees, reiterating the message in her use of a red high heel print fabric from West Africa called “Michelle Obama’s Shoes” in one of the women’s clothing. (The painting’s title is also the title of Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography; she drew it from a poem by African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.)

Survivor, Bisa Butler: Portraits @ Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: Marielle Bokor

One of my personal favorite pieces in the exhibition was “Survivor,” featuring three women in stark contrast to their bright background. The central figure’s gaze is arresting, making it hard to look away, while two others console her. Each of the women is so beautiful and strong as they come together, with blues, purples and greens setting a solemn mood, one single handprint meant to convey the traumatic practice of female genital mutilation still practiced on the Pokot girls of Kenya. Butler conveys such emotion and intimacy in these portraits, telling such deep and important stories wordlessly, flawlessly conveying the beauty and trials of each individual in color, pose and texture. 

An interesting addition to this masterful portraiture is the inclusion of music. Butler and her husband John spent three months crafting a playlist with tracks that represent each piece and add their own layers and lyrics to what’s already in front of you. The tracks representative of each piece are presented with them, and you can have them preloaded (or just use wifi to stream them) on Spotify for your visit. 

Les Sapeurs, 2018. Bisa Butler: Portraits @ Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: Marielle Bokor

Bisa Butler’s work is unique, dynamic, beautiful and colorful. It’s true to her, true to the values of the people who influenced her, and beautifully representative of each individual soul she captures in fabric. She’s contemporary but timeless, and her works are poetic bursts of color that tell stories of lives that matter and are full of that same color and beauty. 

Bisa Butler: Portraits will be on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 6, and grabs another spot on our tour of great things not to miss now that COVID restrictions are lifting and vaccinations more prevalent. Keep in mind that currently, the Art Institute is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays and that you must purchase tickets in advance of your visit, so make sure to check the website for available dates and to acquaint yourself with visiting policies.


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