In my work I am telling the story— The African American side— of this American life. History is the story of men and women but the narrative is controlled by those who hold the pen.
My community has been marginalized for hundreds of years . While we have been right beside our white counterparts experiencing and creating history our contributions and very perspectives have been ignored, unrecorded and lost. Only a few years ago that it was acknowledged that the white house was built by slaves. Right there in the seat of power of our country, African Americans were creating and contributing but who knew who these people were and what their names were. These unacknowledged African Americans had stories, families although they were not considered or treated as equals.
My subjects are African Americans from ordinary walks of life who who may have sat for a formal family portrait or may have been documented by a passing photographer.
These unknown stories fascinate me. I feel these people; I know these stories because I have grown up with them my whole life. I know about my grandmother’s birth at home in Plaquemine Parish, Louisiana; I know about my Aunt Sheila whose family left Mississippi for Chicago in the 1940s; I know about my own father who left Ghana in 1960 with a scholarship to study in the United States and had a suitcase with one shirt and one pair of pants in it. I know the pride in hard work and the dignity of these people because they are my people. I can imagine their lives because they are me and I am them. I grew up listening to the tales of my elders and I heard about what it felt like to be cold and hungry but we still have love and family.
I have a degree from Howard University, a Historically Black University in Washington D.C that was founded when America was segregated by race. Education was looked at as a pathway to a brighter future . The historically black colleges educated the first doctors, lawyers and professionals in this country and to this day graduate more African American professionals than any of the other colleges in this country. It is at Howard that I was taught by the AfriCOBRA ( The African Commune of Bad and Relevant Artists) founders like Jeff Donaldson who was my Dean of Fine Arts, and Frank Smith and Wadswoth Jarell who were professors. We were taught to be proud of our African Heritage and to always present our people in a positive light. They taught us that we had a responsibility to document and correct the misinformation that had been told about our people, and about Africa. We were to use our art as a tool to tell our side of the story to the masses and the mainstream.
I quilt because this was the technique that was taught to me at home. I could sew before I ever painted on a canvas. My mother and grandmother while not quilters sewed garments almost every day. 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. With these bits of cloth African American quilts displayed . 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. My subjects are adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestors. If these visages are to be recreated and seen for the first time in a century I want them to have their African ancestry back, I want them to take their rightful place in American history. I want the viewer to see the subjects as I see them
I feel driven to tell my side of the story---that African Americans have a lot to be proud of; that we take care and love our children; that we believe in family; we value education; we work hard and we belong here. Every human being is equal and I hope people see that when they view my work. A billionaire has no more or no less value than someone who sweeps floors. We are all in this together and until we know both sides of the story, our history will be incomplete.
I hope people view my work and feel the value and equality of all people. By presenting all of my figures with a richness and dignity they deserve whether they are from a humble background or the upper classes. All of my pieces are done in life scale to invite the viewer to engage in a dialogue— the figures all look the viewers directly in their eyes.
I am inviting a reimagining and a contemporary dialogue about age old issues that are still problematic in our culture through the comforting embracing medium of the quilt. I am expressing what I believe; the equal value of all humans.
Selected Solo Exhibitions:
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago IL - Bisa Butler Portraits; November 2020- April 2021
The Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah NY - Bisa Butler Portraits, July- October 4th,2020
The Claire Oliver Gallery, New York, NY - The Storm, The Whirlwind and The Earthquake February 2020-April 2020
The Lawrence Art Center, Lawrence KS· 2017
Richard Beavers Art Gallery, Brooklyn NY · 2016
Firehouse Gallery, Valley Arts, Orange, NJ · 2015
Domareki gallery, Maplewood, NJ · 2015
NEWARK Academy, Livingston NJ · 2015
Hearne fine art, Faces in Many Places · 2015
Morristown Courthouse, Morristown NJ - 2015
Quilt Me A Story, Bloomfield College, NJ · 2008
Astahs Fine Art Gallery ,Maplewood NJ · 2008
Home of Lonnie Austin show, solo exhibit · 2008
Organic Soul, NJ · 2006
Essex County College, Newark, NJ · 2004
Essex County College, Newark NJ · 2003
Selected Group Exhibitions:
The Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo OH - Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change- November 2020
Art Fair 154, London England - Claire Oliver Gallery booth October 3-6
Expo Chicago, Chicago, IL - Claire Oliver Gallery booth, September 2019
21c Museum Hotel, Cincinnati, OH - Dress Up, Speak Up : Regalia and Resistance - August 2019- present
Art Basel, Miami, FL - Claire Oliver Gallery booth, December 2018
Expo Chicago, Chicago, IL - Claire Oliver Gallery booth, September 2018
Art Basel , Miami, FL- Claire Oliver Gallery booth, December 2017
Claire Oliver Gallery, NY, NY - September 2017
Mariposa Museum, Marthas Vineyard Massachusetts- And Still I Rise
DR Greenway Land Trust, Marie Matthews gallery · 2013
Solos House Gallery, Newark NJ, egregious errors of splendor · 2013
Epcot Center, Walt Disney World, The Kinsey Collection · 2013-16
The Charles Wright Museum, Detroit, Michigan, World African Heritage Festival · 2012
D&R Greenway land trust, NJ · 2012
The San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio Collects · 2011
Smithsonian Museum of American Art, African American Art Gallery, Shared Treasures, the Collection of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey · 2010
The Journey of Hope in America; Quilts Inspired by President Barack Obama, opens at The National African American Museum, Wilberforce Ohio, Japan International Quilt Festival, Yokohama, Japan · 2010-13
Textural Rhythms: Quilting the Jazz Tradition, Curated by Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, traveling show, American Folk Art Museum, New York, Museum of Texas Tech, Lubbock, Texas, the Reginald Lewis Museum, Baltimore, MD, the Kings Art Complex, Columbus, OH · 2009-11
Quilts For Obama, Washington Historical Society, Washington, D.C · 2009
Quilting Together Our Heritage, Bisa Butler and Phyllis Stephens, Chattanooga African American Museum · 2009
2288 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard (Under Construction) New York, NY 10030 02-28-2019 T: (212) 929-5949 1/2 W: www.claireoliver.com
Seeing Jazz a tribute to the masters, Manchester Craftsmen Guild Group Show Pittsburgh, PA · 2009
New York Black Fine Art Show, Hearne Fine Art · 2009
Harlem Sewn Up, group show, The Dwyer Cultural Center, Harlem, NYC · 2009
Festival of the Seas, Cruise ship art show hosted by Hearne Fine Art · 2009
Two Decades of Hearne Fine Art, Group Show, Chattanooga African American Museum · 2009
National Black Fine Art Show, New York · 2008
Quilting African American Women’s History, curated by Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, The National Afro American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, OH · 2008
Group exhibit Daughters of the Diaspora, Hearne Fine Art Gallery, Little Rock Arkansas · 2008
Sisters and Friends Art Show, Bloomington, IL · 2008
Mason Murer Fine Art, Atlanta, GA · 2008
Sisters of the Diaspora, Hearne Fine · 2008
Storytellers Quilters retreat, featured artist, CT · 2008
Treasures of the Silk Road University of Pennsylvania Museum of Art and Architecture trade show · 2008
Face to Face, three-person show Gallery 1978, Maplewood Arts Center, Maplewood, New Jersey · 2008
The Kinsey Collection, touring exhibition, The California African American Museum, Los Angeles California, The DuSable Museum of History, Chicago, IL, The Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach Florida, The California Museum, Sacramento, CA, The Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science, Tallahassee, FL · 2008
The African American Museum of Philadelphia, Warm Spirits Art, Little Rock, Arkansas · 2008
Group show Astah’s Art Gallery, Maplewood, NJ · 2006
Parallels and Intersections quilts curated by Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, The International Freedom Center, OH · 2006
The Graham Collection, Washington, D.C. · 2005
Pictorial Quilt Exhibit, Macon Museum of Art, GA · 2005
Southwest Art Center Exhibitor, GA · 2005
E and S Gallery exhibitor, Louisville, KY · 2005 Group exhibit at The Pingry School, Martinsville, NJ · 2005
Hearne Fine Art 2-person show, Little Rock, AK · 2005
The home of Moses and Caroline Chadwick, CA · 2005
Sienna Visions group exhibit, Plainfield, NJ · 2005
Dwellings Home Décor, Washington D.C. solo show · 2005
Group exhibit C.C Kabaka’s creations, Philadelphia PA · 2005
International Collectors Show, Atlanta GA · 2005
The Graham Collection Group show, Washington, D.C · 2005
Avisca Fine Art, Atlanta, GA Group show · 2005
Baltimore Black Art Expo Exhibitor, Baltimore, MD · 2004
Hearne Fine Art Group Show, AK · 2004
National Black Fine Art Show, New York · 2004
The Graham Collection, D.C. Group exhibit · 2004
October Gallery exhibitor, Philadelphia, PA · 2004
Loft Home art and Design, Atlanta GA solo exhibit · 2004
Philadelphia International Art · 2004
Transcultural Art exhibit, 4 person show, The Bergen Museum, NJ · 2004 Newark Open Doors Tour, Symphony Hall, Newark NJ · 2004
Savacou Art Gallery exhibitor, NY, NY · 2004
October Gallery featured artist, Philadelphia, PA · 2003
Newark Open Doors Studio Tour – WISOMM Mansion, Newark, NJ · 2003
Philadelphia International Art Expo exhibitor · 2003
Best new artist The Coalition of 100 Black Women Philadelphia chapter · 2003
Savacou Gallery Art exhibitor, New York · 2003
Unique Home Art Gallery solo exhibit, Plainfield, NJ · 2003
Surtex Design Show exhibitor, New York · 2002
Howard University Student exhibit, Washington, DC · 1995
Howard University Student exhibit, Washington, DC· 1994
Howard University Student exhibit, Washington DC · 1993
2288 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard
Bisa Butler was born in Orange, NJ, the daughter of a college president and a French teacher. She was raised in South Orange, the youngest of four siblings. Butler's artistic talent was first recognized at the age of four, when she won a blue ribbon in an art competition.
Formally trained , Butler graduated Cum Laude from Howard University with a Bachelor's in Fine Art degree. It was during her education at Howard that Butler was able to refine her natural talents under the tutelage of lecturers such as Lois Mailou Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, Jeff Donaldson and Ernie Barnes. She began to experiment with fabric as a medium and became interested in collage techniques.
Butler then went on to earn a Masters in Art from Montclair State University in 2005.
While in the process of obtaining her Masters degree Butler took a Fiber Arts class where she had an artistic epiphany and she finally realized how to express her art. "As a child, I was always watching my mother and grandmother sew, and they taught me. After that class, I made a portrait quilt for my grandmother on her deathbed, and I have been making art quilts ever since."
Bisa Butler was a high school art teacher for 13 years; 10 in the Newark Public Schools and 3 at her own alma mater, Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey.
Butler’s work was most recently the focus of a solo exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York that will subsequently travel to the Art Institute of Chicago. Her works are included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; Newark Museum of Art; The Toledo Museum of Art and Orlando Museum of Art, among others.
In 2019 Butler was a finalist for the Museum of Arts and Design Burke Prize. Her portrait of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai was featured as a cover for Time Magazine’s special issue honoring the 100 Women of the Year in 2020.