Created entirely from cotton, silk, wool and velvet quilted and appliqué; it would be easy to assume the work of artist Bisa Butler is somewhat traditional – feminine, maybe, and delicate.
But while it's undoubtedly exquisitely detailed and nuanced, it really packs a punch. Her portraits are expressive, viscerally alive – and at times, rather haunting.
Butler's work is currently on show at her first solo exhibition at Claire Oliver Gallery in New York. Titled The Storm, the Whirlwind and the Earthquake; the exhibition of large-scale works showcases her signature composite characters that are rendered life-size, adding to the feeling that they're staring right at you.
Her works are inspired by historical photography; namely vintage photographs of African Americans taken during World War II by the U.S. Government Farm Securities Administration. She found these images thanks to the recent digitisation of a collection of such photographs, which were left undeveloped for decades, and their subjects remain mostly anonymous.
Her work, then, is a tribute to these nameless figures as she transforms them into compelling likenesses, weaving real histories of American life between 1935-1944 with the artist's imagined versions of their inner thoughts and feelings. As such, she gives these people dignity and sense of agency denied to them in their lifetime.
Butler says her portraits "include clues of their inner thoughts, their heritage, their actual emotions, and even their future." This sense of heritage is hinted at in her choice of materials: she uses West African wax printed fabric, kente cloth, and Dutch wax prints to "communicate that all of my figures are of African descent and have a long and rich history behind them," she explains.
Her skills in working with textiles were passed down to her from her African grandmother; and Butler's broader aims with her work are to showcase beauty, strength, and resilience in Black American figures in a bid to "reorient angst and despair".
Her choice of bright, striking colour palettes is down to the fact she wants to "represent our skin because these colours are how African Americans refer to our complexions," says the artist. She adds, "I represent all of my figures with dignity and regal opulence because that is my actual perspective of humanity."
The show title references a quotation from an 1852 speech by American social reformer and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, delivered on U.S. Independence Day. It reminds those celebrating "freedom" that slavery was still very much a reality: "It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake."