Bisa Butler hopes all who see her historic ESSENCE cover “feel the immediacy of it, the urgency of what we’ve gone through in this year.” Being tapped as the vessel through which to channel our collective reflection of a year filled with uncertainty, racial unrest, and, of course, resiliency is personal for the celebrated artist.
“This project was really important to me,” she shares. “I grew up looking at ESSENCE Magazine. I remember seeing Beverly Peele and Iman and Naomi Campbell . . . these beautiful Black women on the cover of ESSENCE and a really good friend of mine, her mother was the editor-in-chief back in the ‘80s, so I was surrounded by this idea that ESSENCE represented the pinnacle of Black glamour, but also Black intelligent women.”
A painter-turned-mixed-media-quilter, Butler, who soaked in the wisdom and genius of such art titans as Lois Mailou Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, and Ernie Barnes while attending Howard University, is noted for her boldly layered fabrics and vibrant imagery that lean into the familiar and familial, as well as the traditional.
Incorporating her own lineage—her mother hails from New Orleans and her father from Ghana—as well as such influences as Romare Bearden’s vibrant collages, Faith Ringgold’s picture book quilts and Gordon Parks’ majestic photographs, Butler preserves and honors the legacy of African American quilting while also making it exciting, boldly modern, boastfully Black, and uniquely her own.
“Because it’s quilting and because I’m using the things that my grandmother and my mother taught me before I ever even went to school—they weren’t quilters, but they taught me how to sew—I feel like quilting and my artwork has taught me that I already had everything I needed,” the New Jersey native explains. “We’re always looking for the external satisfaction or [feel] ‘I need to go out here and learn something new,’ but our ancestors, our elders, they’ve already given it to us.”
Leaning into that heritage has taken the wife, mother, and one-time Newark Public Schools art teacher, to heights never reached by Black artists or any artists. Bisa Butler: Portraits, her current exhibition at the world renown Art Institute of Chicago until September 6, is the first by any living artist mounted in its hallowed classical European galleries.
As demonstrated by this beautiful cover, Butler creates realistic and captivating portraits of Black people. In the cover image, the young Black woman reflects the weight of her world, her reality, in images of both George Floyd and Breonna Taylor through an emotional and empowering kaleidoscope of colors.
“This is a young woman who knows exactly who she is and she’s not going to take being pushed aside or being told you don’t have a seat at the table anymore. And I hope that when they look at it,” she says of the audience, “they get the sense that our time is now.”