Artists Bisa Butler and Tonika Johnson gather on the occasion of the exhibition Bisa Butler: Portraits for a conversation with Erica Warren, associate curator of Textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Bisa Butler made her first portrait quilt, Francis and Violette (Grandparents), while earning a master’s degree in arts education at Montclair State University, New Jersey. Trained as a painter at Howard University in Washington, DC, Butler shifted to a textile-based practice to create the vibrancy and dimension she found lacking in her paintings. In turning to textiles, Butler also connected with her family history; she had learned to sew at a young age from her mother and grandmother. By revisiting these early lessons and joining them with her formal studies, she found her artistic path.
Bisa Butler strategically uses textiles—a traditionally marginalized medium—to interrogate the historical marginalization of the people she depicts while using scale and subtle detail to convey her subjects’ complex individuality. Together, Butler’s quilts present an expansive view of history through their engagement with themes such as family, community, migration, the promise of youth, and artistic and intellectual legacies. Bisa Butler: Portraits is the first solo museum exhibition of the artist’s work and will feature over 20 portraits.
Tonika Lewis Johnson is a photographer/visual artist and life-long resident of Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Englewood. Within her artistic practice, Tonika often explores urban segregation and documents the nuance and richness of the black community. As a trained photojournalist and teaching artist, she has been engaged in building an artistic legacy that gained citywide recognition in the last three years. Her “Folded Map” project, which visually investigates disparities among Chicago residents while bringing them together to have a conversation, was exhibited at Chicago’s Loyola Museum of Art in 2018. Since then she has transformed this project into an advocacy and policy-influencing tool that invites audiences to open a dialogue and question how all Chicagoans are socially impacted by racial and institutional conditions that segregate the city. In 2019, she was named one of Field Foundation’s Leaders for a New Chicago, and most recently she was appointed as a member of the Cultural Advisory Council of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events by the Chicago City Council.
Made possible by the Frank J. Mooney Memorial Fund
Image: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 2019, Bisa Butler. Private Collection