Book Review: "Bisa Butler: Portraits"
On the cover of Bisa Butler’s Portraits, a six-year old girl stands composed, brave and ready, about to emigrate from Jamaica to the US. Her face beams in luminous, golden light, her hair tied in lemon yellow ribbons, all radiating against a deep blue, which might be the ocean, might be the night sky. Color and light stun, like the majesty of stained glass, as the layers and patterns of her portrayal compel a long look and a bit of awesome wonder.
The artist describes herself as, “Fiber artist, teacher, wife and mother,” and speaks with pride in equal intonation for each role. That’s befitting of a woman who began art studies at Howard University, but then pivoted when she felt, “The paintings were flat, they looked like every other painting.” A fan of Romare Bearden, she appreciated the legacy and dignity in quilting and proceeded with her first project, a small oven mitt. Now she’s making art history. Even this jewel box of a book, a humble 8 by 12 inches, speaks to how she understands the elemental, as she recalls being on the bus, captured by the beauty of a fellow passenger, and the awareness of, “Seeing a heart of gold, but they’re not recognized.” This catalog, published by the Art Institute of Chicago, accompanies Butler’s recent show, which presents layered stories that throb with vibrating color, multi-cultural pattern and lyrical texture. Essays on quilting, photography and art history accompany the 21 full-page spreads, which are richly referenced with flavoral dashes of poetry from Muddy Waters, Tupac Shakur and Maya Angelou. —Gwynned Vitello
Art Institute of Chicago, artic.edu