life, quilted: Bisa Butler’s Portraits at the Art Institute of Chicago

The women in my mother’s family tie off their quilts. I’m not entirely sure where it came from, though I will confess I’ve wondered if we’re tying off and tying elfknots into our own work (rather than our hair: mine is too straight to elfknot anyway) as a good-luck charm, or maybe a ward. (It’s not as though we remember why we have to have horse shoes around the house anymore, just that we must.) All I know is that our style of tying off has been handed down generations, mother to daughter, grandmother to granddaughter. When I tie off, my foremothers are with me.

I thought of the weight of my foremothers as I looked at Bisa Butler’s magnificent Portraits, at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 6. (I really wish my summer had not been quite so bad, because I would have liked to see it more.) Butler’s appliqué quilting techniques are drawn from her family, passed from her grandmother and her mother to her, alive now in vibrant high art.

And vibrant Butler’s work is: alive, pulsing with vitality and with color, a reminder of the inherent dignity and beauty of the African American community, a tie to its roots and to its future. Butler often uses photography as a reference, and if you’ve seen old Chicago photos, you’ll recognize those five boys, now immortalized in vibrant color, so alive you’ll think they might bounce off the fabric in front of you. (Worth noting that the dapper young fellow in front of the car—and at the front of the quilt—is the late Spencer Lee Readus, Jr. of Chicago.)

Four Little Girls is beautiful, and alive, as each little girl turns and dips and bobs, her skirts swirling with movement. It’s also heartbreaking. Here, in this moment, in this art, the four young victims of the terrorist attack on a Birmingham church in 1963 are still alive, bobbing and dipping and happy, little girls in pretty clothes. They aren’t martyrs, yet. They’re just little girls, and how I wish that they could have stayed little girls, and grown up into women, and not joined that long list of victims of white supremacy on September 15, 1963.

Butler’s craft and technique is exquisite. Unlike Faith Ringgold, who also works with textiles, Butler uses no paint: every single piece on her works is fiber. (Hands are hella hard. Butler does beautiful hands—and they’re all fabric appliqué. I mean, look at the beautiful hands on The Equestrian.) In The Tea, also based on a photograph from Bronzeville, Sunday hats shine with tulle and feathers (made of fiber too!) in full display.

Butler’s art is set in the larger context of African American art throughout the small exhibition, which includes works by Romare Bearden, Gordon Parks, Nelson Stevens, Faith Ringgold, and Barbara Jones of the AfriCOBRA movement. (I talked about a book launch pertaining to the movement back before this long COVID discontent.) Every technique Butler uses situates her art in the wider context of women’s work and womanhood, a tie to her mother and her grandmother, to be sure, but also to the unnamed women who came before her, and whose women’s work, handed down generations, now hangs in art museums. (And, for even more context, Butler and her husband curated this playlist for us, too.)

I’m not really sure I’m the one to review something like Bisa Butler: Portraits. But I will say that the work is stunning, bringing forgotten people and nameless ancestors springing into life, letting four little girls dance before us, allowing a grave little boy to stare out into the world, a brave, frightened little girl to tilt up her chin and stare into the future, proud and determined.

It’s one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in years, and surely the only one I’ve attended that elicited quite such strong and emotional responses from the personnel I encountered. I only wish the exhibition had been much bigger—and that I’d had a chance to see it more than once.