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Bisa Butler’s textile portraits of people of color are created from layers of brightly colored fabrics with a multiplicity of meanings. Butler’s composite characters are inspired by historical photography; the resulting images are rendered life-sized with viewers often engaging the subjects eye to eye. “The Storm, the Whirlwind and the Earthquake” references a famous quotation from a July 4, 1852 speech by Frederick Douglass rebuking the nation for celebrating freedom during a time of slavery: “It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”
Butler’s life-sized quilted works should also be contextualized within the reappropriation of traditional crafts by feminist artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Shaprio. These works likewise challenge the historical division between textiles and fine art. Butler employs traditional modalities of creating works as an intentional and celebratory act informed by the tradition of quilting and African American women using the scraps of fabric that were available to them to create objects of warmth and comfort. She further recontextualizes the practice of quilting from its utilitarian roots to the creation of rich visual storytelling that combines painterly colors and forms.