TOGGLE LAYOUT: FULL POSTS | POST PREVIEWS
Bisa Butler’s Vibrant Quilted Portraits Share Extraordinary Stories of Black Americans
“I find myself drawn to photographs that remind me of my grandmother’s photo albums, of aunts and uncles, cousins, and ancestors that I’ve never known,” says Bisa Butler (previously), who stitches swatches of vibrant fabrics into striking, life-size portraits of Black figures. At the core of her practice is a recognition of individuals’ accomplishments throughout history, often those of regular people who were extraordinarily courageous in the face of immense adversity. With two large-scale works currently on view in Washington, D.C. and a solo exhibition at the Gordon Parks Foundation in Pleasantville, New York, the artist is developing several new ideas, themes, and directions.
Butler often sources photographs from historic archives, such as an iconic portrait of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and rescued approximately 70 enslaved people through the Underground Railroad. The artist’s portrait of Tubman is powerfully titled “The General,” infused with bold patterns and patchwork. Another piece, “Colored Entrance,” is based on Gordon Parks’s iconic photograph titled “Department Store.” Taken in racially segregated Mobile, Alabama, in 1956, the image portrays a mother and daughter standing beneath a neon sign that denotes a separate entrance they are permitted to use.
Increasingly, Butler collaborates with living photographers and artists. Spurred by a desire for connection during pandemic lockdowns, she approached Janette Beckman, whose photographs of 1980s hip-hop stars like Run DMC and Salt-N-Pepa documented the era and graced genre-defining album covers. “My husband, John, who is a hip-hop DJ and producer, shared a photograph of Salt-N-Pepa, and when I saw who did it, I thought, let me be brave,” Butler says. “I sent [Beckman] a message, and I asked her if she would be willing to let me make a quilt based off of her photograph. She was so lovely. She agreed. She even visited me and my husband in our studio, which we share, and she took our photo as well!”
Working in close proximity to her husband has strongly influenced the artist’s practice. While she was creating the Salt-N-Pepa portrait, he made a compilation they call the “Goddess Mixtape,” featuring Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Rapsody, Queen Latifah, Cardi B, and others. Those songs surfaced memories and helped to define the message of her works. “If you listen to the ‘Goddess Mixtape,’ and then you see my quilt of Salt-N-Pepa, you’ll see something about me, something about the 1980s, something about young Black Americans, and something about the expression of women—what it is that we want and what it is that we need,” she says.
“Hot, Cold, and Vicious” portrays Salt-N-Pepa’s era-defining bomber jackets, boots, and bodysuits in bold, African wax fabric, also known as Dutch wax. Combined with vinyl, glitter, and velvet, details like bamboo-shaped “door-knocker” hoop earrings, boomboxes, and LP records were screen-printed onto cotton swatches in collaboration with Butler’s studio neighbor, artist Gary Lichtenstein. “I must have at least forty, maybe fifty bins of fabric, but there are still things that I just don’t have,” she says. “I like Nigerian wax fabric and Nigerian batik or tie-dye fabrics. I also like using Ghanaian kente fabric, and I like Swiss lace—a lot of Nigerian brides use Swiss lace.”
From start to finish, a piece can take about four to six weeks to complete, beginning with loose sketches in Sharpie marker on top of a printout of a photograph and culminating in quilts that include appliquéd details. “When I’m creating quilts, I think about what the personality is of the person who I’m trying to portray,” she says.
Do I want to portray somebody who is contemporary or somebody from the past? Do I want to say that this person is strong and bold and powerful? I might use bright, intense colors: bright red, bright fuschia, bright orange, or even an electric green. If I’m trying to say that this person is more laid-back, more calm, more cool, I’m going to use actual cool colors, like cool water and deep blues.
In her monumental tribute to African American soldiers who fought in World War I, “Don’t Tread On Me, God Damn, Let’s Go!—The Harlem Hellfighters” consists of nine figures detailed in blues, pinks, and reds on a monochrome backdrop of green florals. The 369th Infantry Regiment consisted mainly of African Americans and also included men from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Guyana, among other places. “When they went over to Europe, the white American soldiers refused to fight alongside Black men,” Butler says. “They had been so miseducated—lied to—and had the wool pulled over their eyes to believe that African Americans didn’t have the intellectual capacity to fight as men because they were not full men, some sort of ‘sub-men.'” They were often assigned menial tasks in the U.S. Army, which, like the rest of the country, was segregated.
When the French Army needed support, the U.S. Army lent them the 369th, which ultimately spent more time in the front-line trenches and suffered more casualties than any other American unit. Legend has it that the Germans called them the Höllenkämpfer or “Hellfighters” for their tenacity and resilience on the battlefield, and the name stuck. “They went over; they wanted to help win that war. And they wanted the respect as men,” Butler says. The scale of her quilt puts the soldiers at nearly life-size, and they meet the viewer’s gaze directly, evoking a sense of familiarity and connection with each individual.
Butler’s solo exhibition Materfamilias at the Gordon Parks Foundation Gallery runs through April 14, and her quilts are also included in This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through April 2, and Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience. at the National Museum of African American History and Culture through April 1. She will present a solo show with Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in New York City this May and is currently preparing for a large-scale solo exhibition in Washington, D.C., in 2025. Find more on the artist’s website, and follow updates on Instagram.
Share this story
Humor and Happenstance Coalesce in Julie Hrudová’s Amsterdam Street Photography
Along the streets and canals of Amsterdam, photographer Julie Hrudová (previously) captures daily life through candid snapshots of cyclists hauling unique cargo, pedestrians battling the elements, and canines commuting in style. In her series Chasing Amsterdam, Hrudová focuses on everyday moments and unexpected happenings around the Dutch capital, highlighting the diverse routines of its inhabitants. She has also just begun to experiment with mobile phone videography. “After roaming the streets of Amsterdam, it’s fun to capture the city and other places in a new way,” she says.
Prints from Chasing Amsterdam are available to purchase in Hrudová’s shop. Find more of her work on her website, or follow updates on Instagram.
Share this story
Wild Personalities Flirt With Their Frames in Calvin Nicholls’s Meticulous Paper Sculptures
In exacting detail, a giraffe nuzzles its young and a panda noshes on eucalyptus fronds in Calvin Nicholls’s paper sculptures (previously). Working primarily in white and neutral-toned paper, his pieces capture the intricate details of animals’ musculature, fur, and feathers in meticulous cuts and creases. Mounted onto dark backgrounds and situated within a border of mat board, Nicholls’s subjects resist being contained altogether, as a paw, bill, or ear projects just outside the frame. “I often reach out to wildlife photographers and stock agencies to fill gaps in the gestures and moments I’m eager to create,” he tells Colossal, sharing that these kinds of collaborations have led to some of his favorite works.
Based two hours north of Toronto in the Kawartha Lakes region, Nicholls has ample opportunities for walks in nature and viewing wildlife, which inspire an ongoing series called Backyard Birds, along with individual commissions. Find more information on his website and Instagram.
Share this story
Endangered Animals Dissolve and Reassemble in Thomas Medicus’s Anamorphic Glass Sculpture
Depending on which direction you approach from, you may encounter a lynx, a bee, a kingfisher, or a river trout in Austria-based Thomas Medicus’s new public installation. Moving around the work, one image gradually dissolves into abstract strips of color before a different creature assembles on another side. Known for his anamorphic sculptures (previously) that change with every 90-degree rotation, Medicus’s “Human Animal Binary” interlocks more than 144 strips of glass and focuses on four species native to the Tyrol region of Austria. All are endangered or threatened due to the increasing impacts of the climate crisis.
Constructed of glass, concrete, and metal, the vitrine that houses the artist’s glass animals nods to human-built structures and the urban landscape encroaching on natural habitats. The vessel itself “addresses a dilemma in which a large part of humanity finds itself: human habitat largely contradicts coexistence with non-human animals,” Medicus says in a statement. Contained within the cube, each specimen invites the viewer to look them in the eye and consider the delicate balance of the surrounding ecosystem, the fragility of existence, and the critical role humans play in both the destruction and preservation of nature.
Find more of Medicus’s work on his website and Instagram, and get further insights into the work in a short documentary on Vimeo.
Share this story
After Sitting in Storage for More Than Three Decades, an Art Amusement Park Is Finally Going On Tour
In the summer of 1987, a carnival like no other popped up for thirteen weeks on a public green in Hamburg, Germany. Walking through a gate featuring an oversized painting by Sonia Delaunay, visitors entered the world of Luna Luna, an amusement park brimming with rides and kiosks designed by some of the most recognizable names in 20th century art history like David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, and Salvador Dalí, to name a few. Altogether, thirty-five artists were invited to create new works for the fairground, which was slated for a global tour, including a Ferris wheel by Jean-Michel Basquiat and a carousel by Keith Haring.
Luna Luna saw nearly a quarter of a million visitors in its first—and only—summer. A change of ownership after its initial installation trapped the project in a legal battle, and it was instead locked away in storage. It was more than three decades before it was seen again. In 2022, a team of creatives organized to buy the contents of the original presentation, restore it, and launch a multi-city tour starting in 2024. To mark this new chapter, Phaidon has also re-issued Luna Luna: The Art Amusement Park, a book first published in 1987 that includes numerous photographs and documentation along with cover drawings commissioned by the artists.
At Luna Luna, art was for all. The book’s author, Austrian artist and curator André Heller, described that the ethos behind the project was that art “should come in unconventional guises and be brought to those who might not ordinarily seek it out in more predictable settings.” The artist-designed environment was an opportunity to imagine a kind of art utopia, drawing on the nostalgic popularity of amusement parks as places of entertainment and escape for people of all ages. The Luna Luna team aims to pick up where the original edition left off, evolving and incorporating new commissions from innovative and influential artists working today.
While the components of the park are currently being restored in Los Angeles, you can grab a copy of the book on Bookshop. Find more information on Luna Luna’s website, and follow on Instagram for updates about the upcoming tour.
Share this story
A Visit to Third Man Records Reveals the Remarkably Analog Process of Cutting Vinyl Records
How do our favorite songs make their way into vinyl records? The team over at WIRED visits Third Man Pressing in Detroit to document the particularly labor-intensive production process. From adding the finicky lacquer coating to etching the matrix number by hand, the undertaking requires at least 14 steps before the album is packed and shipped, and each record passes through numerous sets of hands on the production floor. As the music industry becomes increasingly digital, the cutting process remains remarkably analog. “Vinyl is in the real world. It’s not something that exists only on your computer or your phone. It’s three-dimensional,” says one of the pressing plant’s engineers.
Watch the video above for a tour of the facility and insight into the manual parts of the process behind each album. You also might enjoy this DIY engraver for homemade vinyl. (via Kottke)
Share this story
Editor's Picks: Art
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.