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.
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Craft Dance Science
Trick Facial Recognition Software into Thinking You’re a Zebra or Giraffe with These Pyschedelic Garments
Here’s some unusual criteria to consider when deciding what to wear: if you’re scanned by facial-recognition software, do you prefer being detected as a zebra, giraffe, or a dog? Cap_able, an Italian fashion-meets-tech startup, prompts consumers to consider individual rights to privacy when making decisions about self-expression. The studio’s inaugural project, the Manifesto Collection, combines knitwear with an algorithm into a kind of 21st-century camouflage that protects the wearer’s biometric data without the need to conceal the face.
Built on ideas of collaboration and awareness, Cap_able was established in 2019 to fuse technology, textiles, and fashion into a high-tech product with everyday applications. Evocative of Magic Eye puzzles, the technology behind the Manifesto Collection‘s psychedelic patterns is an innovative system “capable of transposing images called adversarial patches onto a knitted fabric that can be used to deceive people detectors in real time,” the company says.
“Choosing what to wear is the first act of communication we perform every day. (It’s) a choice that can be the vehicle of our values,” says co-founder and CEO Rachele Didero. Likening the commodification of data to that of oil and its ability to be sold and traded by corporations for enormous sums—often without our knowledge—Didero describes mission of Cap_able as “opening the discussion on the importance of protecting against the misuse of biometric recognition cameras.” When a person dons a sweater, dress, or trousers woven with an adversarial image, their face is no longer detectable, and it tricks the software into categorizing them as an animal rather than a human.
The idea for the startup was planted in 2019 when Didero enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, where she was introduced to topics and issues around privacy and human rights. The idea of combining fashion and computer science evolved during months of research in working with textiles and studying artificial intelligence. She developed the now-patented concept of knitting adversarial imagery directly into the fabric of the garments, giving them the ability to respond to an individual’s size and shape, as opposed to existing versions which could only be applied to surfaces. After developing prototypes and testing the patterns using different types of recognition software, Didero teamed up with business partnert Federica Busani to launch the first collection.
Unlike most clothing items you’ll find on the rack, Cap_able’s garments are accompanied by some unique fine print: “The Manifesto Collection‘s intent is not to create an invisibility cloak, rather, it is to raise awareness and protect the rights of the wearer wherever possible.” See the full collection on Cap_able’s website.
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A New Book Repaints the Legacy of Street Art by Spotlighting Women Leading the Genre
For street artists, the urban landscape is an infinite canvas. Whether wheat pasted, sprayed, or layered with brushes, vibrant compositions revitalize public spaces and provide an ever-evolving barometer of the political climate and current affairs. The genre has been historically dominated by men, but a new book by journalist Alessandra Mattanza and Museum of Urban and Contemporary Art founder Stephanie Utz shifts the dial.
Women Street Artists spotlights the diverse practices of 24 graffiti and mural artists hailing from around the globe who work in a variety of styles, from large-scale public projects like Camilla Falsini’s vibrant pavement composition in Milan to striking interventions like Olek’s pink, crocheted coverlet for “Charging Bull,” Wall Street’s masculine bronze sculpture. Each finds walls, sidewalks, demolished structures, prison cells, grain silos, and other nontraditional surfaces to express ideas around feminism and empowerment, body imagery, racism, the climate crisis, and other critical issues.
You can find a copy of Women Street Artists on Bookshop.org, available now in the U.K. and scheduled for release in the U.S. on December 6.
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Uncanny Scenarios Unfold in Whimsical and Ironic Illustrations by Yuko Shimizu
Abundance, repetition, and a tinge of irony accompany a cast of humans and animals through uncanny scenarios in Japanese artist Yuko Shimizu’s illustrations. Her whimsical subjects are often playful and humorous, like a pet dog in a sweater with red stripes that matches its youthful owner’s swimming suit, the pair flanked by numerous balloons in the shape of lifebuoys. In contrast, a more grave undertone emerges in “Me Too,” a reference to the #MeToo movement, as a woman stands on a mountain of eyes and attempts to brush countless more off of her body.
Drawing inspiration from myriad sources, including Japanese culture and current events, Shimizu’s compositions are characterized by a sense of action and obscure narrative. You can follow more of her work on Instagram.
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New Banksy Works Emerge Among the Destruction in Ukraine
Banksy (previously) has been traveling through the battle-scarred streets of Ukraine, producing a slew of works directly confronting Russia’s unwarranted and unjust aggression. The elusive street artist’s signature stencils have been spotted among the rubble of bombed buildings and barricades in Borodyanka and Gorenka, both in the Bucha Region, while others are just outside the capital city of Kyiv. Each centers on the strength and resiliency of the Ukrainian people.
The works broadly criticize the ongoing war and its disastrous effects on the everyday lives of citizens, depicting a woman outfitted with hair rollers, a bathrobe, and a gas mask grasping a fire extinguisher, a bearded man scrubbing his back in an open-air bathtub, and silhouettes of young children teeter-tottering on a left-behind hunk of steel. Perhaps the most pointed piece is that of a young boy slamming Russian President Vladimir Putin to the ground during a judo match—according to the BBC, Putin has projected an interest in the sport.
Watch Banksy at work on these pieces in a recent YouTube video, and find more on Instagram. This is the first time the artist has emerged since the Spraycation series 15 months ago.
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Art Dance History Music Photography
30,000 Photographs of Black History and Culture Are Available From Getty’s Archive
From a black-and-white portrait of a reclined James Baldwin to a candid shot of a father and daughter on a Harlem park bench, a new archive from Getty grants open access to thousands of images devoted to Black history and culture. The massive collection—which was developed with historians and educators Dr. Deborah Willis, Jina DuVernay, Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, Dr. Mark Sealy MBE, and Renée Mussai—comprises 30,000 photographs taken in the U.S. and U.K. that are available for free non-commercial, educational use. Applications for access are open now.
Organized by decade from the 1800s to the 2020s, the Black History & Culture Collection offers a broad, varied look at the people, events, and undeniably influential movements that continue to shape life today. The collection is further searchable by type and subject matter, which encompasses everything from art and entertainment to politics and sports. You can find a curated selection of images from the multimedia platform Black Archives, which partnered with Getty to shine light on specific moments from the collection. (via Peta Pixel)
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Highlights below. For the full collection click here.