Quilts From the Pen of Bisa Butler

Wangari Maathai quilt by Bisa Butler


A native of Orange, NJ, Bisa Butler is an American fiber artist known for her quilted portraits and designs celebrating the lives and culture of African Americans.  As a child, she spent her free time first watching her mother and grandmother sew, then being taught by them. She majored in Fine Art at Howard University, where she studied the work of Romare Bearden and attended lectures by prominent black artists such as Lois Mailou Jones. While pursuing a master’s degree, she took a Fiber Art class that inspired her choice of quilting as an artistic medium. After that class, she made her first quilt, a portrait created in homage to her grandmother upon her deathbed.  From that point on she turned to quilting full time, and the rest is HERstory.

With quilts often feature portraits of famous figures in black history such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jackie Robinson, and Josephine Baker, Bisa uses a variety of patterned fabrics which she carefully selects to reflect the subject’s life. Sometimes she even uses clothing  and fabrics worn by the subject. Her portrait of Nina Simone, for example, is made of cotton, silk, velvet, and netting, while that of Jean-Michel Basquiat is made of leather, cotton, and vintage denim

” In my work I am telling the story from my pen— this African American side of the American life.  The story of our contributions and perspectives that have been ignored, unrecorded and lost.  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 grandmothers birth in Plaquemine Parrish Louisiana , I know about my Aunt Sheila whose family left Mississippi for Chicago in the 1940’s; I know about my own father who left Ghana in 1960 with a scholarship to study in the United States and a suitcase with one shirt and one pair of  pants. I know the pride of 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, ” states Butler regarding her passion-filled creations.


Bisa Butler quilted artistry


With a degree from Howard University in Washington D.C., it is there that Butler was taught by Africobra (The African Commune Of Bad and Relevant Artists) founder Jeff Donaldson who along with other professors taught her to be proud of her African heritage and to always present African American people in a positive light. They taught her that she had a responsibility to document and correct the misinformation that had been told about her people, and about Africa itself.

When asked why she chose quilting as her tool of artistic expression, Butler replied, ” 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 grandmother and mother, while not quilters, sewed garments almost every day. African Americans have been quilting since we were bought to this country and needed to keep warm. Enslaved people were not given large pieces of fabric and had to make do with the scarps of cloth that were left after clothing wore out. From these scraps the African American quilt aesthetic came into being.  My own pieces are reminiscent of this tradition.”

Using African fabrics from her father’s homeland of Ghana, batiks from Nigeria, and prints from South Africa, Butler’s subjects are adorned with and made up of the cloth of her ancestors. Visages claiming their African Ancestry, she envisions her quilts taking their place in American History. Life size in scale, Butler’s quilts invite the viewer to engage in a face-2-face dialogue and offer the reimagining of a contemporary conversation about age old issues through the comforting, embracing medium of the quilt itself.




Calling Butler a quilt artist doesn’t quite capture her mastery of this craft. Once traditional women’s work, it is now considered fine art.  Given that each intricately stitched piece takes over 1,000 hours, Butler is amazingly prolific in her craft. Two rooms in her home studio are dedicated to her art-making. One room is full of the velvet, wool, silk, chiffon, and African wax-cast cotton prints that Butler collects. The fabric will be cut, pinned, appliqued by hand and stitched by machine in her production room. Some areas are built up in layers, creating almost a relief effect. Her subjects seem astoundingly alive, caught in a moment in time, somewhere between now and then, the then being a period in American history that has never before been seen in technicolor like this.


Inspired by Bisa’s quilts?

Find out more about Bisa Butler and her amazing creations here:


Pulse Art Fair 2019

Print By Print




Inspired by the fabrics?


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