Hip-Hop’s Next Takeover: Bisa Butler’s Quilts

“Art of Craft” is a series that depicts the work of specialists elevated to the level of art.

Textile artist Visa Butler was working in her Jersey City, New Jersey studio one day when her DJ husband, John Butler, played “The World Is Yours” by hip-hop artist Nas. The song struck a special chord with Butler, and something clicked. “We can make this world the way we want it,” she said. “The power is within us. We must claim that power.” For a former high school art teacher, it was a welcome pain reliever.

“Watching the news now, or reading the wrong or other newspapers, can make you depressed,” says Butler. “And I was distraught. Music was a real comfort to me.”

Ms. Butler, who held a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2021, has reached heights not seen as a fabric artist since Faith Ringgold, whose work has also received international acclaim. Ms. Butler’s new show pieces are priced in her six figures or higher.

Nas’ lyrics are the inspiration for Butler’s latest exhibition. “The world is yours,” The exhibition runs until June 30th at the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in New York. The work is based on photographs of black people taken between 1950 and 2021, and is quilted with fabrics that were fashionable at the time. “They’re really claiming their space. Like, I don’t just deserve to be here, I’m awesome,” she said.

The show’s approach is a change for Butler, who usually builds his work around images from around 1850-1950. One of the series’ standouts is based on a 1970s photograph of a young black couple with their arms crossed. “It looks so nice, warm and stylish,” said Butler. “It was everything I wanted in a couple.” Seeing the couple reminded Ms. Butler of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s song “You’re All I Need to Get By,” so that The lyrics were sewn onto the back of the couple. Another quilt is 13 feet high and 10 feet wide representing a photograph of the hip-hop group Salt and Pepa taken by Janet Beckman.

“I grew up with that famous photo,” said Butler. She added that she brought this image to the present at a moment of urgency for people of color. On her 50th anniversary of hip-hop, Butler, who also turns 50 this year, feels that her work evokes music.

“My work is a remix of the old stuff,” Butler said. Similarly, hip-hop, which relies on remixes, “keep the spirit of improvisation alive,” she added.

Butler’s creative process begins with a photograph that inspires her. “The more connected I am to this work, the more I can imagine how I want to translate it,” she said. She then blows up a black and white version of her photo and begins sketching on it. “At that point, you can choose a color that fills the gap between light and dark,” she said. Stitch later.

Some of her latest projects use materials that evoke the style of the 1970s when she came of age: gold glitter and glitter spandex. Most of the fabrics are of African origin.

Her aim is to create an impression of the person in the photo. “Are you trying to say that this person had a hard life and struggled?” Mr. Butler said. “Do you want hard denim?” Or do you want to convey that this person is very sensitive and gentle, and he wants to use laces that are so thin that they will tear if not handled carefully? “

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