Art of Craft is a series about specialists whose work rises to the level of art.
The textile artist Bisa Butler was working in her studio in Jersey City, N.J., one day when her husband, John Butler, a D.J., played the song “The World Is Yours” by the hip-hop artist Nas. The song had a particular resonance for Ms. Butler and something clicked: “We can make of this world what we want,” she said. “The power is within us. We got to claim the power.” The message was a welcome balm for the former high school art teacher, who has found herself alarmed by the movement to stop teaching the civil rights movement in some classrooms.
“Right now if you watch the news or read the wrong paper, or any paper, you can get depressed,” Ms. Butler said. “And I have been distraught. Music has been a real solace for me.”
Ms. Butler, who held a solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2021, has reached heights not seen for a fabric artist since Faith Ringgold, who has also received international acclaim for her work. Pieces in Ms. Butler’s new show are priced at six figures and up.
Nas’s lyrics are the inspiration for Ms. Butler’s latest exhibition, “The World Is Yours,” running through June 30 at the Jeffrey Deitch gallery in New York. The works are based on photographs of Black people taken from 1950 to 2021, quilted in fabrics that were popular during their eras. “They’re really claiming their space; like, not only do I belong to be here, but I am fabulous,” she said.
The show’s approach is a shift for Ms. Butler, who typically builds her work around images from around 1850 to 1950. One of the standouts of the series is based on a 1970s photograph of a young Black couple with their arms interlaced. “They just look so lovely and warm and stylish,” Ms. Butler said. “It was all the things I wish for a couple.” The couple reminded Ms. Butler of the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell song “You’re All I Need to Get By,” so she stitched the song lyrics behind the couple. Another quilt is a 13-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide representation of a photograph of the hip-hop group Salt-N-Pepa taken by Janette Beckman.
“I grew up looking at that famous photo,” Ms. Butler said. She has brought the image into the present at a moment of urgency for people of color, she added. On the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, Ms. Butler — who also turns 50 this year — feels her work evokes music.
“My artwork is a remix of something old,” Ms. Butler said. In the same way, she added, hip-hop, which also relies on remixes, “keeps that improvisational spirit alive.”
Ms. Butler’s creative process starts with a photo that moves her. “The stronger connection I have to it, the more I can envision how I want to translate this thing,” she said. She then blows up a black and white version of the photograph and begins to sketch on it. “I can select colors at that point to fill in between the lights and the darks,” she said. Stitching comes later.
For some works in her most recent project, she used materials reminiscent of the style during the 1970s, when she came of age: gold lamé, glitter spandex and more. Much of the fabric is of African origin.
Her aim is to create an impression of the person portrayed in the photograph. “Do I want to say that this person lived a hard life and they struggled?” Ms. Butler said. “Do I want to use hard denim? Or do I want to say that this person is very delicate and gentle, and do I want to use laces that are so thin that they might rip up if I don’t handle them carefully?”