Place, Race, Gender and Materiality: Bisa Butler Making the Last, First and the First, Last in the Modern Museum

Place, Race, Gender, and Materiality: Bisa Butler Making the Last, First and the First, Last in the Modern Museum


A.W. Eaton and Charles Peterson


Bisa Butler is a contemporary artist who creates stunning portraits composed entirely of textiles. In this article, we argue that one significant aspect of Butler’s oeuvre is the way that she deeply entwines the ethico-political and the aesthetic in a beautiful symbiotic partnership. Through a careful examination of her work, her technique, her artistic and museum contexts, and the unknown African American subjects she celebrates, we argue that Butler’s work should be understood as liberatory artistic practice that disrupts hegemonic spaces and ideologies.

Key Words
Bisa Butler, African American, decolonial, colonialism, repatriation, quilting, African diaspora, liberatory artistic practice, feminism, W.E.B. DuBois, AfriCobra, Faith Ringold


1. Introduction

I am one who tells the truth and exposes evil and seeks with Beauty and for Beauty to set the world right. That somehow, somewhere eternal and perfect Beauty sits above Truth and Right I can conceive, but here and now and in the world in which I work they are for me unseparated and inseparable.
-W.E.B. Du Bois [1]

Questions of race and power have been gaining traction in Anglo philosophical aesthetics for over a decade. A landmark event in this trend was the special issue of Contemporary Aesthetics in 2009 (vol. 2), edited by Monique Roelofs, devoted to race and aesthetics. This was followed by: a select occurrence of conferences; Paul C. Taylor’s monograph, Black Is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics (Blackwell 2016), which won the American Society of Aesthetics monograph prize, and, most recently, a special issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (Vol. 77 (4) Fall 2019) edited by the authors of this essay. Simply put, these efforts aim in various ways to liberate Anglo philosophical aesthetics from the unspoken – and sometimes explicitly spoken – constraints of Eurocentrism and the hegemony of white supremacist values. This project is nowhere near completion.

In this essay we aim to continue this trend by discussing the work of Bisa Butler as an artistically significant challenge to the dominant values of the mainstream artworld and of mainstream Anglo philosophical aesthetics.

The Raft of Medusa

Figure 1. “The Raft of the Medusa”

Butler is a contemporary artist who creates arresting life-size portraits composed entirely from textiles. By stitching together and layering carefully cut bits of vibrantly colored, patterned, mesh, or chiffon  fabrics, Butler renders light and shadow with surgical precision, carves out human forms with illusionistic three-dimensionality, and lends her subjects facial expressions and gestures that convey considerable psychological depth and complexity. Butler’s works are also astonishingly beautiful, a description that we do not apply lightly. They must be seen in person to fully appreciate their beauty.

We argue below that Butler’s oeuvre exemplifies the following interrelated phenomena. First, her work is a paradigmatic example of what we call a liberatory artistic practice (to be explained below). Second and related, in Butler’s portraits the aesthetic and ethico-political dimensions are profoundly entwined (pun intended) in a symbiotic partnership. As we demonstrate below, some of Butler’s most profound ethico-political points are made via aesthetic means, while some of what we would typically consider to be aesthetic features – including things like color and medium – have a deeply ethico-political aspect. In Butler’s work truth and beauty are, as DuBois puts it, “unseparated and inseparable.” Third, display itself can be significantly ethico-political-aesthetic. Our exploration of Butler’s portraits includes considering their concrete display in a major art museum and the way that this intervention constitutes part of Butler’s liberatory artistic practice.

Our discussion proceeds in the following manner. In Section 2, we explain what we mean by “liberatory artistic practice.” In Section 3, we discuss the role that art museums play in maintaining a racialized and gendered status quo, and then turn to various projects to decolonize the museum. Section 4 addresses the intersecting racialized and gendered dimensions of Butler’s artistic practice. Section 5 continues this discussion by focusing specifically on the materiality of Butler’s works. Section 6 concludes by briefly weaving these strands together (another intended pun).

2. What is a liberatory artistic practice?

As subjects, people have the right to define their own reality, establish their own identities, name their history. As objects, one’s reality is defined by others, one’s identity created by others, one’s history named only in was that define one’s relationship to those who are subject. . . . Every liberatory struggle initiated by groups of people who have been seen as objects begins with a revolutionary process wherein they assert that they are subjects. . . .Oppressed people resist  by identifying themselves as subjects, by defining their reality, shaping their new identity, naming their history, telling their story.

–bell hooks.[2]

Let us begin with the notion of “liberatory.” When we speak of “liberatory artistic practices,” from what exactly does the practice in question liberate, whom does it liberate, and how is the art part of this liberation?

In general, we call “liberatory” those artistic practices that fundamentally and centrally aim to overcome systems of injustice such as colonialism and imperialism, racism, patriarchy and sexism, homophobia and transphobia, ableism, classicism and capitalism, ageism, fatism, or other systems of hegemony and oppression (this “or” is inclusive). In so doing, liberatory artistic practices aim at social transformation through artistic means, where “artistic” should be construed broadly to include all sorts of aesthetic practices traditionally excluded from the realm of “art,” such as quilt making. Ideally, the liberatory artistic practices approach aims at social transformation in an intersectional manner, that is, analyzing oppressive complexes as they affect simultaneously overlapping social identities.[3] However, we do not mean to imply that a given artistic work, or even an entire oeuvre, needs to address every form of oppression in order to count as liberatory. As we shall see in our examination of some of Butler’s oeuvre, practitioners of liberatory art have their particular foci that they manifest in individually expressive ways. We argue below that Butler’s work is fundamentally decolonial, anti-racist, and Black Feminist.[4] Further, as noted earlier, we argue that these ethico-political dimensions of her work contribute significantly to the aesthetic and artistic value, and also that the aesthetic plays an important role in the works’ liberatory vision.

In order to understand what it means for an artistic practice to be liberatory in the way just specified, we must first recognize the ways in which the artworld has been colonized and dominated by racist Eurocentric patriarchal values. By “artworld” we mean the connected yet heterogeneous cluster of practices, practitioners, and institutions including artists, art schools, galleries, museums, auction houses, art criticism – which art critics and the venue in which they publish – and academic fields such as art history, museum studies, and philosophical aesthetics.

Too many aspects of the artworld have been and continue to be colonized and dominated by racist Eurocentric patriarchal values for us to enumerate here. In addition, the literature is vast and complex. Instead of an attempt at summary, we briefly offer a few examples. First, consider that white Europeans have stolen the artifacts of indigenous groups around the world, from the native peoples of the Americas, of the African continent, of Oceana, and of the Near East – to display in art museums and ethnographic museums in Europe and North America. Among these artifacts are sacred objects, funerary objects, ancestors (or, in hegemonic terminology, “human remains”), and other objects of ongoing historical, religious, traditional, or cultural importance. To take an example relevant to this paper, experts estimate that “over 90% of the material cultural legacy of sub-Saharan Africa remains preserved and housed outside of the African continent.”[5] Further, these ethnographic and art museums have persisted in retaining these objects despite so many claims from indigenous groups to return the objects and ancestors. Over the past three decades, some governments and museums in Europe and North America have slowly begun to recognize the legitimacy of these claims and started the processes of restitution and repatriation, but there still remains so very much to do.[6]

A second example of the artworld’s colonization and domination by racist Eurocentric patriarchal values, and one that is directly relevant to the topic of this paper, is the artistic canon itself. By “the canon” we mean the body of works traditionally considered by dominant society to be “great art.” Although the shape of the canon is not entirely settled and its borders not completely fixed, for centuries the artworld has congealed around a large body of works that are agreed to be worthy of the following: being imitated by other artists; being preserved and maintained, often through extremely costly methods; being displayed in museums and galleries; being bought and sold at exorbitant prices; and being studied and taught. With respect to the visual arts, for instance, “the canon” includes the works firmly ensconced in the kinds of institutions widely referred to as “art museums” across Europe and North America and in other parts of the world.

The canon, we have just said, has been colonized and otherwise dominated for centuries by white males. This colonization has multiple faces, here channeling Iris Marion Young.[7] (1) The first face is that the artifacts considered to be “art” – where this is understood to be a term of commendation rather than merely descriptive – strongly tend to be produced exclusively by white European men. Quoting a study of diversity in US art museums[8] Hakim Bishara writes, “The study found that 85.4% of the works in the collections of all major US museums belong to white artists, and 87.4% are by men. African American artists have the lowest share with just 1.2% of the works; Asian artists total at 9%; and Hispanic and Latino artists constitute only 2.8% of the artists.”[9] Artifacts produced by people who are not white European men, by contrast, tend to get relegated to categories such as “craft.”

(2) The works that get counted as “art” tend to embody, appeal to, aestheticize, and even romanticize and glorify the interests of hegemonic groups while tending to stereotype, objectify, or even demonize members of subordinated and minoritized groups. This happens in a variety of ways.  (a) In terms of Representational Content: Representational works that count as art tend to focus on white men and their activities and other subjects that matter to and appeal to white European men. Rarely are people of color represented and more rarely still are they represented not serving white interests.[10]  (b) Point of view: The sorts of works typically counted as “art” portray their subjects from points of view typical of, and favorable to, white European males and often unfavorable to people of color and indigenous peoples. Consider, for instance, Ingres’ Le bain turc (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1862, oil on canvas, 1.08m x 1.1m, Louvre Museum), where non-European women are represented according to sexually objectifying Orientalist stereotypes.[11] (c) Style: The works counted as “art” either (a) tend not to engage with styles and formal methods belonging to non-European artistic tradition, or (b) appropriate non-hegemonic artistic styles. An example of the latter is Pablo Picasso’s modernist “masterpiece” Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, oil on canvas, 243.9cm x 233.7cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York).

(3) The third face of the colonization of the canon is seen in the kinds of artifacts – the media, artforms, and genres – that typically get to count as “art.” The kinds of artifacts counted as “art” tend to be the kinds of things typically made by white European males such as oil painting and marble sculpture. The kinds of things typically made by colonized people, people of color, or by white women, such as quilts and other textiles, clothing and masks, furniture, baskets, and pottery, rarely count as “art” but rather are considered to be mere “craft.”

These are the three principal faces of the domination of the artistic canon by white male interests and values. We will refer to this as “the hegemonic canon.” The mechanisms that sustain and promote this hegemony are the various components of what is often called “the artworld”: art schools, galleries, museums, art critics, art historians, and artists themselves. Of these components, one that is of special interest to us in this essay is the art museum because this is one chief site of Bisa Butler’s decolonizing intervention. In order to fully appreciate Butler’s intervention, the next section discusses the broader project of decolonizing the museum.

3. Place

Museums have an important role to play in producing, maintaining, and promoting the hegemonic canon. Museums strongly influence, and sometimes even determine, what is to be considered worth collecting, displaying, and conserving, thereby conferring considerable value on some artifacts – certain kinds of artifact that reflect the interests and tastes for the particular kinds of persons who produced them – while (a) excluding other kinds of artifacts or (b) collecting other kinds of artifacts but treating them as diminished or (c) or collecting others that were stolen or otherwise wrongfully removed from their rightful homes (again, these are inclusive “or”s). Although things are beginning to improve, since their inception art museums in the U.S. have been run almost entirely by boards, directors, curators, and conservators who are white and of European descent, and there persists a real lack of genuine inclusion in the areas of collecting, exhibiting, programming, and outreach. Even when it comes to curating works from non-white parts of the world, white people continue to function as gatekeepers and definers of what is worthy of admittance to hegemonic spaces and worthy of display.[12]

Insofar as artifacts produced by non-European peoples are included in “art” museums, these artifacts were often looted during colonial escapades or otherwise stolen and relegated to lower orders of human production, thereby justifying the method of procurement.[13] Just to take one example, Napoleon and his armies looted many artifacts in his campaigns into Egypt and the Near East and the spoils are displayed all over Paris, some of them in the Louvre. While the Louvre is not the greatest offender in this regard, we mention it here for reasons that will become apparent later.

Our point is that museums and other curatorial spaces are fundamentally inseparable from the project of Imperialism. The museum is a modern space to gather and observe a collection of objects from across the world purportedly assembled as a distillation of some notion of a universal humanity. But this assemblage has always been defined by North Atlantic powers and hinges upon the mechanics of European imperial expansion across the globe. The brutally aggressive contact of Western European states and cultures with the indigenous societies of Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, and the Pacific Islands, beginning in the late fifteenth century and lasting into the late twentieth century, became the ground for the establishment of European based normative valuations along aesthetic, political, economic, social, cultural and technological lines. These valuations created binary systems of meaning wherein the peoples, cultures, histories, and artifacts of subjugated groups were diminished in their standing and ordered as inferior to their European and later American counterparts, while the aspects of Euro-American cultures were exalted and consolidated belief in their dominance. The museum of the colonial moment fused the expansion of knowledge and global contact of North Atlantic powers with the aggressive nationalist pride of their hegemonic positions. As Allesandra De Angelis and co-authors put it, “museum narratives build national and cultural [and racial] identity through framing.”[14] This aggressive contact between North Atlantic societies and “the rest of us,” was also based on brutal acts of violence, disruption and resource exploitation, including the expropriation of minerals, crops, peoples and artifacts.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, speaking of the looting of the Asante king’s palace by British commander Major Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (later founder of the Boy Scouts organization) in 1895, states, “There are similar stories to be told around the world. The Belgian Musée de l’Afrique Centrale, at Tervuren, explored the dark side of the origins of its own collections in the brutal history of the Belgian Congo, in a 2001 show called ‘EcItCongoMuseum.’”[15] Rarely is the museum presented as a collection of the remnants of disrupted cultures and trophies of war. Instead, whitewashed (pun intended), it is framed as an array of the works of the universe of humans beyond the veil of “civilization.” The means and circumstances of said artifacts’ procurement were erased, de-contextualized and mounted in an ahistorical light of aesthetic purity in, as Foucault would phrase, “the immediate beyond of time and space.” Distinct from the stuffed and mounted animals shown in artificial habitats, the signs of the hunt and the slaughter and of how the cultural artifact was procured are purged. An accurate display of the textiles, statuary and jewelry of the Asante people, would be set in a cyclorama depicting a British unit marching through a village burning huts and killing occupants. Yet the museum maintains the facade of the philanthropic spread of European civilization to the benighted corners of the world. In this form, the museum is a space where histories are scrubbed by the necessities of ideological and cultural imperative and the lives of entire groups positioned in an archaic amber of temporal immobility.

In short, art museums in the US and Europe have historically tended and still tend to be white hegemonic spaces controlled by and catering to white interests, full of works made by white men and that address white men and cater to their tastes and interests. Although things are improving, there is still much work to be done and it is going to take a lot of change for art museums to become places where BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) feel respected and at home. Change must come from many places: from museum administration, from curator and the programs that train them, and also from artists.

One recent example of a curatorial-artistic attempt to decolonize the museum space, expose its position as an extension of the larger colonial project, and reshape the museum as a space able to sustain the alternative narratives of Frantz Fanon’s les damned de le terres, can be found in an exhibit curated by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison in 2005.[16] In 2006 the Louvre invited Morrison to curate an exhibit and she chose to center the exhibit on Théodore Géricault’s painting, The Raft of the Medusa (1818, oil on canvas, 193.3 x 282.3 inches, Louvre Museum).[17] The exhibit was titled The Foreigner’s Home and was the subject of the 2017 documentary.[18]

Morrison organized a series of viewings, concerts, and performances within the Louvre and throughout Paris that focused on themes of migration and migrants adrift in the world.  Of her title Morrison says, “The Foreigner’s Home holds two meanings, the dual meaning is deliberate, the foreigner’s own home, memory and ancestry, the foreigner is home, citizenship and belonging. The theme therefore requires us to come to terms with being, fearing or accommodating the stranger” (The Foreigner’s Home, 4:22- 4:34, italics ours).  Positioning Géricault’s painting as the centerpiece of the exhibit, Morrison reads the painting as articulating unspoken realities of historic and contemporary imperial conditions. She says,

It was controversial . . . in its own day. In addition when you look at it you see the raft has been cut away from the main ship and they are just left to survive or drown. And they were all lower class or enslaved people or labourers and there ‘s this one figure at the top . . . looks like a young black boy pointing, maybe he sees a rescue ship, maybe not but that whole notion of misery and being cut off from the colonial ship struck me as symbolic of what the whole foreigner’s home collection would be about. [6:22]

The exhibit was organized a year after the traumatic effect of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf coast of the US and the film displays a series of scenes capturing the plight of citizens in post-Katrina New Orleans. Morrison focuses on the transformation of New Orleans’s Black residents in the midst of the crisis, through media depictions, racist discourse and treatment at the hands of New Orleanian and Louisiana law enforcement, into strangers in their own home. The montage of post-Katrina figures from New Orleans, the physical destruction of homes, dead bloated bodies in the streets, crying children and armed forces patrolling neighborhoods, disrupts the idea of the gleaming stability of American life. These figures are disturbing because they are reminiscent of figures of social disruption and chaos associated with the developing world. In the center of the developed world were hidden realities, ready to be revealed at the turn of history. Morrison, peopling her exhibit with slam poets and others who are marginal to the curatorial world, performs a similar unveiling in the gleaming curatorial world by simultaneously peopling the exhibit with artists from migrant communities in France, whose lives and histories are as marginal to the work of the museum as their art is to its mission.  The narrator, Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticott, intones, “Throughout the exhibition we are reminded of how often in history certain people have been excluded by being declared ‘foreigners’. . . whose voices otherwise never would have been featured there.” Presenting these artists both within the Louvre and without, Morrison dispenses with the barriers/binaries that set the curatorial space apart. Fine art/pop art, high culture/low culture, the transcendent/the mundane, rarified/common all lose their distinctions as Morrison provides broad palates for those whose identities were erased in order to give the museum its particular voice (14:09).

Morrison pays particular attention to the way the narrative-as-art becomes the vehicle by which these voices convey their stories. Morrison invited poets, filmmakers, visual artists and dancers to participate in the exhibit, with the intent of encouraging a sense of threat within the space. Like a nation or country that seeks to maintain its idea of an unblemished self, Morrison’s caravan of artists and others re-construct, affecting the rarified air of the museum space by their presence, actions and interactions. “They change the language and some people are afraid of that obviously . . . They are using other words or they are mangling English, or they are mangling American or they are mangling Turkish for that matter. It is happening all over the world.” (38:53) Moreso, Morrison’s curation set a tone and a standard for the way in which the power dynamic of the museum space can be revealed, disrupted and the voices and works that undo that dynamic are provided purchase and positions of authority. In this place, decolonization happens as an unveiling, a re-ordering and a revelation of how dominant powers have functioned in their determinations of who and what are to be placed when and where  and the simultaneous centering of those populations, histories, experiences and artifacts previously relegated to the margins of artworld.

4. Race and Gender

We have just explored the idea that, whether explicit or not, art museums are political spaces where hegemonic norms regarding race and gender are reinforced or contested. Now let us consider a specific recent example.

From June 18th to August 15th, 2021, a rare and unique celebration of Blackness was taking place in the corridors of the modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. The celebrated portraits of President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley and First Lady Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama by Amy Sherald were being displayed on the first leg of their national tour. Three exhibition spaces were devoted to the portraits of the first African American President and First Lady.

President Barack Obama

Figure 2, oil on canvas, 234.3 × 167.2 × 13.7 cm, 2018, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Michelle Obama

Figure 3, oil on linen, 192.6 × 162.1 × 12.4 cm, 2018, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Noted for the choice of Sherald and Wiley as portraitists, and provocatively stepping away from the traditional stylistic depictions of American presidents and spouses, the portraits display a subjective intentionality, contemporarity and urbane alter-formality in the color choices and positioning of the former first couple.

In her portrait of Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, Sherald uses her signature gray tones to purposefully de-emphasize the racial identity of her subjects. This choice to depict the first African-American First Lady in a racially ambiguous scale provokes aesthetic questions of the possible representations of “black” skin and its meaning and also cultural questions regarding the identity and identification of the portrait. Wiley, on the other hand, creates a verdant green background of flowers representing the locales of Barack Obama’s life. The white flowers are jasmine, representative of his youth in Hawaii; the red and gold flowers are chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago and the purple African lily symbolizes his father’s Kenyan heritage. In a seeming desire to destabilize the presumption of grandiosity inherent in this genre of painting, the paintings and the exhibition attempt to say something about the “humanity” of the subjects, their down-to-earthiness and their connection to the masses of Black Chicagoans who flocked to see the portraits.

Indeed, it was no accident that Chicago was the first leg of the National Portrait Gallery’s tour. The Obama’s story as a married couple and as a power couple has its origin in the midwestern metropolis. The curation of the portraits demanded the visitor be aware of this fact. Etched across the walls of the exhibit was a hagiography of the couple that, despite the attempted humility of the portraits, was in the business of mythologizing the couple. The humble roots of both figures were described, and literally the path of their movement across the city was tracked and consecrated, like secular stations of the cross. The disposition of the exhibit was meant to immortalize these figures and call attention to their greatness, their having ascended to the highest peaks of American life, the eternality of their achievements forever preserved in canvas, colors, and placement. However, across the museum in a different set of galleries, deep in the heart of the pre-modern wing, different celebrations of Blackness were being exhibited. These connected but distinct ways of understanding the souls of Black folk were being presented and in more than canvas, color, and placement.

Bisa Butler’s exhibition Portraits (The Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, Feb. 11–Sept. 6, 2021) joined in dialogue with the Obama portraits across museum space. The congruences were clear: both exhibits centered on the portrait; both featured only Black subjects; and both drew huge crowds of African-Americans to the Art Institute of Chicago, crowds who rarely see themselves reflected in the works exhibited in a major art museum. But the differences between the two exhibits were also palpable. Whereas the Obama portraits employ traditional “fine art” media (oil on canvas [him] or on linen [her]), Butler’s portraits are, as we have discussed, made entirely from textiles, using techniques whose products have historically been relegated to the lesser category of “craft.” While the Obama portraits depict two highly-recognizable individuals, Butler’s quilted portraits are based on photographs of people whose names we no longer know.[20]

This last point is worth exploring further. As is well-known, Butler bases her portraits on historical black-and-white photographs of ordinary African Americans, sometimes sitting for a formal portrait, sometimes photographed by a unanimous passer-by. In using these photographs as the basis for her portraits, Butler consciously tells the story of African Americans whose lives would not be included in the grand narrative of the American experiment. These stories co-exist with and are woven into the national narrative, yet are invisible and their presence unknown to the common viewer. Says Butler, “My subjects are  . . . like the builders of the White House, they have no names or captions to tell us who they were.”[21] Butler’s creative intention is to elevate into recognition otherwise anonymous African Americans at greater levels of historical and cultural existence by celebrating the power in their presentation of the self. In their form and placement, the portraits display the humanity of these unknown peoples whose figures and lives are at best distorted through veils of obscurity and at worst erased from space and time itself. Butler’s work echoes the photography of nineteenth century photographer William Bullard, standing as an affecting witness whose role is to “see” the lives of peoples unknown and unseen beyond their communities.[22] Whereas the Obama portraits enhance the grandiosity of the lives of two “extraordinary” individuals and Bisa Butler’s portraits asserts the nobility in the lives of the “ordinary” and overlooked. The two projects are similar, however, in that they use artistic means to lay claim to an idea of African American grandeur.

Butler’s overall project, we want to continually emphasize, is at once both ethico-political and aesthetic, and it is also both groundbreaking and as old as Black aesthetics in the U.S. itself. In a nutshell, this project is able (a) to use materials available for creative expression to articulate and represent aspects of Black life that the white gaze, and in particular the white male gaze, is unable or unwilling to see and (b) to reflect those aspects back to Black viewers in a heightened stylized form. About her training at Howard University under director and AfriCOBRA[23] founder Jeff Donaldson, Butler says that she was taught, “You [the Black artist] have a responsibility to educate your people. You [the Black artist] have a responsibility to always have your people shown in a positive light.”[24] Acknowledging her commitment to this ethos, she says, “I want my artwork to speak for me and speak for my people. I want my artwork to tell the truth about who we are.”[25]

Butler’s ennobling of the seemingly anonymous individuals in these photographs harkens back to W.E.B. DuBois and Thomas Calloway’s exhibition of “Negro” American life at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. According to Aldon Morris, the purpose of the exhibits were to “display artifacts signifying great national achievements and provide evidence suggesting even greater accomplishments in the coming century.”[26]  DuBois’ and Calloway’s exhibit demonstrated DuBois’ work as the father of American quantitative sociology. The exhibit presented the social development of the Black American (Negro) community and foreshadowed DuBois’ ideas regarding the socio-political power of African-American aesthetic presentation. About this Morris notes:

At the turn of the century, portrayals of black people as sub-humans, incapable of attaining great material and cultural achievements, were commonplace throughout the western world. Yet a different view emerged from the American Negro Exhibit at the Exposition. Here African Americans were displayed in a series of photographs and artifacts as a proud people, dressed in splendor.[27]

Butler’s portrait Asantewaa (Figure 4) encapsulates this ethos. “Asantewaa” is a name from the Asante ethnic group of present day Ghana, West Africa. Most notably the name is associated with Yaa Asantewaa, a queen of the Asante people who at the beginning of the twentieth century fought The War of the Golden Stool against British colonial incursion after the exile of her husband, Asante king Prempeh I.[28] Asantewaa is one of the places in Butler’s oeuvre where a Black Feminist liberatory aesthetics is most explicitly developed.[29] This is evident in many aspects of the portrait.

The Obama Portraits, Art on theMART 2021

Figure 4.  “You can see the Obama Portraits at ‘Art On The Mart’”

First, consider the chair. It is a simple armless chair with a minimalist open back and appears to be made of metal and perhaps wood. We can see very little of the chair because most of it is hidden by Asantewaa’s grand form, but nevertheless the chair plays an important role and reminds us of Edward Fielding’s remarks about the multiple functions that chairs can play in art:

A chair is a familiar object. One we all use every day, an object distinctly created for the human body. The chair is a physical reminder of human occupation of space, a proxy for humans not currently in the space. A chair can have character. Character-based on its design, based on its location, based on its condition, and even based on its placement in regard to other objects around it . . . a chair can be a symbol of power from a king’s throne to a seat at the head of the table.[30]

In this portrait, the chair underscores and augments Asantewaa’s importance and independence. In photographs from the turn of the twentieth century, figures would position an empty chair to signal the absence of a family member. In the case of women, standing beside an empty chair would be a signal to the viewer that the woman was not single but married and her husband simply not present. This Asantewaa, unlike her historical namesake, does not stand in support of or wait for an unseen husband, but sits in her own regality, commanding the viewer’s attention.

Second, consider Asantewaa’s physical presentation. Her facial expression speaks of determination and strength. Asantewaa confronts our gaze with self-assuredness, her left hand confidently, and perhaps even defiantly, planted on her knee. Her right arm, by contrast, casually dangles off the chair, suggesting repose and leisure rather than physical labor. In this way, the portrait challenges a common, deeply damaging stereotype of Black women as the “mammy,” a faithful, obedient, hard-laboring domestic servant or, in earlier times, slave.[31] And while Asantewaa’s legs open toward us, this is not in an erotic gesture of sexual access, thereby denying another hegemonic stereotype of Black women (the Jezebel), but rather one of owning and taking up space.[32] In contrast to the way one so often sees women portrayed in hegemonic artistic traditions, this work presents the subject as claiming and commanding space.

Third, the West African print that makes up Asantewaa’s dress harkens to a pre-western culture and identity unencumbered by the racialization and oppression of African peoples in the west and the maintenance of an independent sense of self that understands the complexity of African descended identity in the United States. We discuss the importance of Butler’s choice of fabrics in Section 4 below.

Fourth, Butler’s use of various colors and screens to depict skin is an important reminder of the enormous variation in skin color in Africa and in the African diaspora and a powerful rejection of the hegemonic notion of one single Black skin tone.

Choosing a simple brown to depict Black skin reveals not only a lack of attention to this variation but also an insensitivity to the complex shading of Black people’s skin which has undertones of color.[33] Black cosmetologists sometimes assert three basic types of undertone for Black skin – “cool,” “neutral,” and “warm” – where each type influences the color of the visible layer. Butler clearly appreciates this fact and uses layering of color to bring specificity to her figure’s faces. Asantewaa, for instance, has a warm tone that matches the portrait’s abstract background. Her eyes, set within a fiery mask of orange and reds, whose details are etched with shades of blue for contour and to shape the face, are deep and serious, suggesting the figure in the frame is appraising the viewer in return.

Butler continues in this vein with the piece titled I Am Not Your Negro.[34]


Figure 5. Asantewaa

I Am Not Your Negro

Figure 6. I Am Not Your Negro

The portrait is a refashioning of Dorothy Langes’ photograph, “Negro In Greenville, Mississippi” (1936). Here Butler uses darker colors to carve emotion, definition, and individuality into her subjects’ faces. The “Negro”’s eyes are of primary importance here, narrowing into a tight squint that is accented by arched eyebrows, the faded color of the irises adding an inscrutability to his facial expression. The subject gazes directly at the viewer. For white viewers this is important because in the context of early twentieth century Greenville, Mississippi, like much of the US, this confrontational gaze would be called “eyeballing.” Black Americans, especially Black men, looking directly into the eyes of white people were read as disrespectful and challenging white authority. “Eyeballing” could be an excuse for random punishment. If that direct Black gaze, specifically the Black male gaze, were visited upon the body of a white woman, it was termed “reckless eyeballing,” which often became the excuse for punishing Black men through lynching or other acts of violence. The direct gazes of Butler’s subjects in both  I am Not Your Negro and Asantewaa are imbued with this history and are thereby all the more arresting, empowering, and challenging to the dominant social order. These gazes also challenge the viewer’s potential objectification of the subject, as objects do not return the gaze; it takes a human to see a human.

The tightness of the physical positioning of the figure in I Am Not Your Negro adds a felt sense of appraisal, as if he were sizing us up. His body is wrapped around itself; crossed legs, bent with the right arm lodged into the space between crossed thigh and bent abdomen, the left hand thumb resting against his lips projecting a pensiveness and uncertainty. He appears immersed in an internal debate, the display of bodily tension betraying a dynamic reflection. We get direction about the nature of this debate from the title of the portrait which references the documentary on writer James Baldwin. The title, I Am Not Your Negro, in this way summons Baldwin’s constant critique and challenge to the white dominant racial order of America and the assertion of his self-aware identity.[35] The look of agitation and consternation on the subject’s face reflects the emotional energy of Baldwin’s work and Baldwin himself. The facial expression challenges the viewer, dissuades them from whatever assumptions they may have about who and what is the Negro of Greenville, Mississippi (1936). By asserting “I am not your negro,” the figure destabilizes prejudices that may be held by the viewer, and by not being “your” negro this opens the possibility opens of not being “a” negro at all, which further allows for the possibility of the viewer seeing and recognizing the subject as a full and complex human being.

Let us return to Butler’s statement regarding the ethico-political dimension of her artistic training and her work. She insists that it is her artistic “responsibility to educate  . . . and responsibility to always show my people in a positive light.” Insofar as she insists that this is her artistic responsibility, Butler brings to mind W.E.B. DuBois’ famous essay, “The Criteria of Negro Art” where he insists:

All Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.[36]

What DuBois meant by “propaganda” is complicated and deserves more attention than we can give it here, but it is clear that he does not mean the sort of utterly one-sided and ham-fisted manipulative representations that are characteristic of politically repressive regimes or of nation states’ attempts to rally sympathies during wartime. Rather, as Paul Taylor has persuasively argued, in saying that art is and must be propaganda, DuBois means to deny that art can ever be “purely aesthetic” nor should it aim to be.[37] DuBois insists instead that artists cannot help but express, and more importantly, ought to express, their social, ethical, and political milieu and communicate these to audiences who also inhabit deeply social, ethical, and political worlds.

DuBois recognizes the ideological role of the dominant artworld in its support of white supremacy and the role of messaging in art created by Black people, in their struggle for the assertion and recognition of their fully realized selves, in short the use of [Black] art as an explicit tool of liberation. DuBois continues:

I do not doubt that the ultimate art coming from black folk is going to be just as beautiful, and beautiful largely in the same ways, as the art that comes from white folk, or yellow, or red; but the point today is that until the art of the black folk compells [sic] recognition they will not be rated as human. And when through art they compell [sic] recognition then let the world discover if it will that their art is as new as it is old and as old as new.[38]

This aesthetic compulsion for the recognition of Black people as persons intentionally challenges the white gaze’s desired form of Blackness: “They [White supremacists]  want Uncle Toms, Topsies, good ‘darkies’ and clowns . . . In other words, the white public today demands from its artists, literary and pictorial, racial prejudgment [sic] which deliberately distorts Truth and Justice, as far as colored races are concerned, and it will pay for no other.”[39] Butler’s aesthetic of representation, her liberatory artistic practice in its self-awareness, its ability to refute and return the white gaze limits the expectations of the art world as we know it, and challenges, expands and redefines the contours and parameters of practices, beliefs, assumptions and spaces through which hegemonic art holds dominance.

5. Materiality

We began this essay with the claim that in Butler’s portraits the aesthetic and ethico-political dimensions are profoundly entwined in a symbiotic partnership. We have already shown several ways in which this is true. In this section we further elaborate by explaining how throughout Butler’s oeuvre, the medium plays as much of a role in the works’ ethico-political vision as it does in their aesthetics.

Clement Greenberg held that medium is of utmost importance in artworks. “It is by virtue of its medium that each art is unique and strictly itself.”[40] Whether you agree, it is undeniable that great art often centers on the struggle of pushing the medium beyond its apparent limits in order to make it do things previously thought impossible. This was true for Leonardo da Vinci and Miles Davis, to name two artists who, while in many ways quite different, both pushed their media to unimaginable new heights. This is also true of Bisa Butler.

One of the most striking things about Butler’s portraits is that they are textiles and are sewn, their surfaces alive with the play of stitches, textures, intricate layers, and sheens. The dignified and psychologically subtle individual personages that these works so vividly and compellingly conjure are made exclusively through the complex buildup of layers of fabrics, stitching, and yarns and threads of many sorts. We invite you to let this astonishing fact sink in. Not a single detail is painted or drawn; everything is sewn, everything is exquisitely rendered exclusively via the careful manipulation of textiles of different sorts. We say that this fact is astonishing because until now, most of us probably thought of the medium of textiles and the method of quilting and sewing as being best suited to abstract geometric patterns, not to conjuring intricate psychologies and carving out palpably 3-dimensional human forms. And yet this is precisely what Butler achieves. By overlaying and overlapping mesh and often the tiniest slivers of translucent fabrics, Butler is able to lend her subjects subtly expressive faces and convincingly three-dimensional bodies that command both their space and ours.

To be clear, our point is not that Butler’s works are trying to be something that they are not; these are not quilts masquerading as portraits in the grand tradition of oil painting.[41] On the contrary, our point is that Butler’s works challenge deeply entrenched racist and sexist norms (a) regarding the artistic capacities and potentialities of textiles and quilting, and (b) regarding what a psychologically complex and compelling portrait should look like – as well as who the proper subjects of such a portrait should be, as discussed in previous sections. Butler’s works foreground and celebrate the materiality of textiles and the artistic act of sewing at the same time that they radically expand this artistic form and practice toward exciting new possibilities.

However, this point does not yet get to the heart of the importance of the materiality of Butler’s work because we have not yet fully answered the question, Why quilting? Is the choice of quilting simply a Greenbergian exercise in pushing the medium to new heights? Definitely not! To see why not, let us turn to Butler’s own words:

I quilt because this was the technique that was taught to me at home. I could sew before I ever painted on a canvas. My mother and grandmother while not quilters sewed garments almost every day. African Americans have been quilting since we were brought to this country and needed to keep warm. Enslaved people were not given large pieces of fabric and had to make do with the scraps of cloth that were left after clothing wore out. With these bits of cloth African American quilts displayed. My own pieces are reminiscent of this tradition but I use African fabrics from my father’s homeland of Ghana, batiks from Nigeria, and prints from South Africa. My subjects are adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestors. If these visages are to be recreated and seen for the first time in a century I want them to have their African ancestry back, I want them to take their rightful place in American history. I want the viewer to see the subjects as I see them.[42]

As discussed above in Section 1, the kinds of artifacts traditionally made by colonized and enslaved people, by other people of color, and by women (where these groups of course intersect) have traditionally been excluded from the hegemonic canon of “art” and instead have been relegated to less-valued (by the hegemonic artworld) categories such as “craft” and “folk art,” thereby depriving them of the appreciation and recognition they deserve. Quilting is one major example of an artform that has been chronically overlooked and undervalued by the hegemonic artworld precisely because of the gender and racial identity of its artists.

As Butler notes, African-descended women have been quilting since they were forcibly stolen from Africa, although their contribution to quilting has been for a long time overlooked by craft historians. That is, even within the already-diminished areas of artifactual production known as “craft,” “folk art,” and “decorative arts,” Black women’s work has been systematically ignored and underappreciated. Another of the ways in which Butler’s artistic production is Black Feminist to the core, then, is in its insistence on the artistic value of quilting and sewing, and on the medium’s capacity to do the artistic work of portraiture: to celebrate its subjects, to acknowledge and emphasize their dignity, and to convey their psychological depth and the complexity of their personhood. One might say that Butler’s technique of layering multiple pieces of mesh and other translucent fabrics to create luminous depths of color is a metaphor for, among other things, the psychological intricacy and richness that she conjures in her subjects.

But there is more to say about the materiality of Butler’s work, for the fabrics she chooses are not just any fabrics. Often Butler uses types of generic patterns of fabrics mass produced in regions across the African continent. These quotidian and ubiquitous fabrics are detached from specific ethnicities, regions, or practices, thereby encouraging a normalization of Africanity as such and removing any exotic perception. The use of these common everyday fabrics reinforces the idea of African cultures and identities as default, centered on themselves, free from the demands, contortions, and expectations of the non-African gaze. Butler’s assemblages of various textiles from continental traditions (where, in case it is not clear, we mean the African continent) and practices serve as a metaphor for the construction of New World Africanity. The variegation of identities that were captured and launched from the slave ports of the African continent were in a sense woven into a complex fabric of meaning, consciousness, and ways of being. We see the resonance of the entangled richness of African descended humanity and its diaspora in Butler’s choice of materials and the manner in which she overlays and overlaps them.

6. Conclusion

Dancing at the Louvre

Figure 7. Dancing in the Louvre

In 1991, groundbreaking artist Faith Ringgold produced “Dancing At the Louvre” as part of a series of works titled “The French Collection” which tell the story of an African-American female artist. Willa Marie Simone, who lives and works in Paris in the 1920s. There is, of course, much to say about this beautiful, whimsical, and deeply political work, but for the purposes of this paper we want to highlight Ringgold’s unmistakable influence on Butler. It is not simply that Ringgold was an artistic pioneer who revealed quiltmaking’s narrative and aesthetic potential by pushing the medium to new heights; there are also clear ethico-political congruences. In “Dancing At the Louvre,” Ringgold subversively inserts Black women into a traditionally hegemonically white male space; and not just any space but what is arguably the most recognized and prestigious art museum in the world. Ringgold’s characters (Willa, her friend Marcia, and Marcia’s three daughters) violate whitely norms of decorum by refusing to stand in hushed reverence before icons of the European canon such as the Mona Lisa. Instead, the characters joyfully dance as they celebrate the masterpieces in their own way and claim the space as their own.

Fast forward almost three decades and one sees this very theme explicitly and boldly taken up by Beyoncé and Jay-Z in their music video Apeshit (2018, directed by Ricky Saiz). The video, which is also worthy of its own article and which we strongly encourage our readers to watch in its entirety, is set in the Louvre in front of some of its most famous and prized artworks, from the Mona Lisa to the Winged Victory of Samothrace to Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa.” Like both Ringgold and Morrison’s The Foreigner’s Home, this music video subversively yet joyfully and artfully incorporates Blackness, and in particular Black women, into a space that has traditionally excluded or ignored Black people and their artistic production. Apeshit does this in several ways. First, the video centers on Beyoncé and her dancers, all of whom are Black and in leotards that are true to their various dark skin tones. Each dancer’s leotard is its own unique shade. As we saw earlier in discussing Butler’s use of neon-bright colors to celebrate the variety of Black skin tones, so we see here yet another way of rejecting the flatfooted hegemonic notion of Black skin tones as monochromatic. Second, Beyoncé and her dancers are continually extremely favorably compared and thereby  challenge canonical works that have been instrumental in hegemonic white ideals of female beauty such as the Venus de Milo. Third, the camera ferrets out and foregrounds the few representations of Black people that there are among the Louvre’s treasures such as “Portrait d’une femme noir” by Marie Guillemine Benoist (oil on canvas, 1800). Third, the video foregrounds and celebrates Black hair. Consider, for instance, the scene where two dancers sit carefully posed in front of David’s “Madame Récamier” with connected white floor-length white durags that echo Madame Récamier’s white dress. Even more prominent is the scene where one of the dancers uses an afro pick to comb out a man’s hair in front of the Mona Lisa. As we noted, there is much more to be said about this extremely rich, provocative, and beautiful video, but for the moment we just want to use it to trace a line from Toni Morrison through Faith Ringgold to Apeshit, in order to trace the liberatory artistic trajectory in which Butler plays an important role.

DuBois argued, as noted above, that all art should aspire to the state of propaganda. We suggest that Bisa Butler’s work, which is, we have argued, at once ethico-political and aesthetic, is an excellent example. In Butler’s work, the ethico-political and the aesthetic are not two discrete dimensions that merely exist side-by-side. Rather, these two aspects are deeply intertwined and mutually reinforcing; the colors and materials she deploys have an ethico-political dimension as much as an aesthetic one, as do the complex psychologies that her portraits conjure.

The themes discussed above engage the fundamental enactments (assumptions) of the art museum.  Our examination understands the spatial role of the art museum as a site for the production of hierarchical relations within visual art, wherein the space itself bestows an inherent authority within the context of the art industry’s constructed traditions and criteria of Art on the pieces exhibited therein. For those pieces that do not meet the requirements of the art industry, there are levels of recognition and categories of expression to which they are relegated. “High art” vs. “pop art”, “fine art” vs. “folk art” are examples of the type of distinctions that work to maintain the place and privilege of the patrilineal, Eurocentric, elitist (or undemocratic) tradition of Western art. Museums serve as self justifying, authentication machines in service of a larger historical-cultural-aesthetic project of social dominance. That is if left to their own devices.

In the hands of Bisa Butler, the museum becomes a space of greater cultural, racial, historic and affective complexity. Her subjects, materials and presentation challenge normal disposition of the museum space, creating a safe space amongst the monuments to western dominance, in which the worlds of her identity and identifications can live. The subjects of her portraits gaze at the viewer from their specific historical moments in clothing that betrays their place within past and present Africana communities.

The Spotify playlist specially assembled for the exhibit generates clouds of sound as audiences walk amidst Butler’s personas. Butler welcomes the visitor into a world that she crafted through her pieces and her curation. The cadre of child crossing guards that stand tall in “The Safety Patrol” (figure 1) establish an obvious boundary that is breached as one enters the exhibit. They are the guardians at the entrance of a world different from the surrounding museum space, different in, tone, culture, ethnicity, expectation and intention. Each piece individually asserts itself as distinct from normative Museum offerings [materials, topic, subjects] and collectively exists as a part of a larger Gesamtkunstwerk. Butler’s exhibit is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, wherein various artistic forms are assembled into a single unity. Walking through the exhibit with its various characters, costumes, narratives and the musical accompaniment gives the visitor the feeling of walking through the performance of an African Diasporic opera. “Her arresting portraits, which integrate aspects of painting, photography, and textiles, command attention and implore viewers not only to look and see a breadth of Black lives but also to meet those lives with respect, compassion, and humility.”[43] And in this command to see the lives of Black subjects with “respect, compassion, and humility,” Butler’s work begins the unraveling of the colonial/imperial project via deeply co-constitutive and marbled aesthetic and ethical means. The art world’s marginalization of Black communities, the silencing of Black voices (subject and artist), the distortion of the Black body and its histories and cultures and the disregard for the techniques of Black creators, are a piece of that project, placing these lives at the rear of the great chain of humanity. Emanating from a consciousness of Black personhood and of empowering cultural expression, Bisa Butler corrects that derogatory placement by working to reframe the last in that chain of humanity as first, and the first in that chain as last.


Charles Peterson

Charles Peterson is an associate professor of Africana Studies at Oberlin College. He is the author of DuBois, Fanon, Cabral: The Margins of Anti-colonial Leadership (Lexington Press, 2007) and Beyond Civil Disobedience: Social Nullification and Black Citizenship (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2021). His research interests include film, television, cultural and political theory.


A.W. Eaton

A.W. Eaton is a Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Illinois Chicago. She received her PhD in both philosophy and art history from The University of Chicago. She has published on topics such as the relationship between aesthetic and ethical value, pornography, erotic art, fatness, feminist aesthetics, aesthetics and race, and artistic representations of rape. She is currently developing a pragmatic account of pictures and working on various topics related to aesthetic injustice. She has been a Laurence Rockefeller Fellow at Princeton’s Center for Human Values; Senior Research Fellow at Lichtenberg Kolleg, University of Göttingen; and the Brady Distinguished Visiting Associate ProfessorNorthwestern University.

Published November 29, 2022.

Cite this article: A.W. Eaton and Charles Peterson, “Place, Race, Gender and Materiality: Bisa Butler Making the Last, First and the First, Last in the Modern Museum,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Special Volume 10 (2022), Twenty Years of Contemporary Aesthetics, accessed date.



[1] “Criteria of Negro Art,” in W.E.B. DuBois: The Crisis Writings (Fawcett Premier Book/Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1972), 282.

[2] bell hooks, Talking Back: thinking feminist, thinking black (South End Press, 1989), 42-43.

[3] First coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, “intersectionality” is much more than a metaphor for overlapping identities. The term has come to refer to a methodology, a cognitive architecture, and a critical social theory. See Patricia Hill Collins, Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory (Duke University Press, 2019), and Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality (Polity, 2020).

[4] We use the term “Black Feminist” because we find the work of Patricia Hill Collins particularly useful for interpreting and appreciating some of Butler’s work, but we do not mean to be taking a stand on the distinction between Womanism and Black Feminism and leave it to the reader to choose whichever term they think most appropriate. For a discussion of the distinction, see Patricia Hill Collins, “What’s In a Name? Womanism, Black Feminism, and Beyond,” The Black Scholar, 26, 1 (1996), 9–17.

[5] Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics.” Paris, France: Philippe Rey, Seuil, 2018, p. 3. The full report is available here:

[6] For a recent overview of the philosophical issues pertaining to cultural patrimony and repatriation, see (Matthes 2018). For the U.S Native American Repatriation Graves Repatriation Act, see

[7] Iris Marion Young, “Five Faces of Oppression,” Philosophical Forum, 19, 4 (1988), 270.

[8] Topaz CM, Klingenberg B, Turek D, Heggeseth B, Harris PE, Blackwood JC, et al. (2019) Diversity of artists in major U.S. museums. PLoS ONE 14(3): e0212852.

[9] “Artists in 18 Major US Museums are 85% White and 87% Male, Study says,” Hyperallergic, June 3, 2019.

[10] For a historically specific, detailed, and thorough analysis of this point, see all five volumes of the series, The Image of the Black in Western Art from Harvard University Press.

[11] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books,1979). Said’s fundamental thesis asserts that the West’s aesthetic frames construct a figure of the “East,” the Middle East, North Africa and Asia Minor, that manifests the civilizational self-conception of the western imperialist project.

[12] Ryan Sit, “Museum Appoints White Woman as African Art Curator, Sparks Outrage,” Newsweek, March 29, 2018,

[13] The literature on this topic is vast. For a recent thorough discussion of the issues by way of the famous case of the Benin Bronzes, see Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museum: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution (Pluto Press, 2020). For an informed critical review of this book, see Ivan Gaskell, “The Brutish Museums” (review of Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, 2020), West 86th online, April 6, 2022:

[14] Allesandra De Angelis, et al. “Introduction: Disruptive Encounters- Museums, Arts and Postcoloniality,” The Postcolonial Museum: The Arts of Memory and the Pressures of History, eds, Allesandra De Angelis, et al (New York: Routledge, 2014), 11.

[15] Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 116.

[16] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2005).

[17] Here is a permalink to the painting:

[18] Rian Brown and Geoff Pingree, dirs. 02/13/2022.

[19] Barack Obama’s portrait can be accessed here:

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama’s portrait can be accessed here:

[20] For an illuminating discussion, see Michèle Wije, “Photography and Quiltmaking Transformed: A New Approach to Portraiture,” in Bisa Butler – Portraits, ed. Erica Warren (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago 2021), 27–36.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Janette Greenwood, “How Black Americans used portraits and family photographs to defy stereotypes,” The Pittsburgh Courier

[23] AfriCOBRA (African Collective of Bad Relevant Artists) is an arts collective established in Chicago, IL in 1968. Inspired by the Black Arts Movement, AfriCOBRA artists saw art as a form and source of communal empowerment. These artists, “used the black identity, its style, attitude and worldview to foster solidarity and self-confidence throughout the African diaspora.”

[24] “Quilting for the Culture, Bisa Butler,” Quilting for the Culture, Bisa Butler.

[25] “A Conversation with Bisa Butler, Part 1,” A Conversation with Bisa Butler, Part 1.

[26] “American Negro at Paris, 1900,” W.E.B. DuBois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America: The Color Line at the Turn of the Century, eds. Whitney Battle-Baptist and Brit Russert (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2018), 23.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Harcourt Fuller, “Commemorating an African queen: Ghanaian Nationalism, the African Diaspora and the Public Memory of NanaYaa Asantewaa, 1952-2009,” African Arts, 47, 4 (Winter 2014), 58-71.

[29] As we say in note 4 above, we do not mean to take a stand on whether to describe Butler’s work as “Black Feminist” or as “Womanist” and are using the terms interchangeably.


[31] See Patricia Hill Collins, “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling figures” in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Routledge, 2000).

[32] On the Jezebel stereotype, see Collins (ibid), chapter 4, “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images,” 69–96.

[33] As Tiffany Torrence, licensed aesthetician, makeup artist, and founder of the Skin and Body Klinic, explains in Essence Magazine: “Skin tone and undertone are not the same thing . . . Skin tone can change over time for a variety of reasons, but undertones remain constant (yes, even when you tan). Michelle Darrisaw, “What’s Your Skin Undertone?: Here’s How to Find It,”

[34] This title is taken from the 2016 James Baldwin inspired documentary I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, dir.)

[35] downloaded February 5, 2022 10:25pm.

[36] DuBois, ibid, 288.

[37] Paul C. Taylor, Black Is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics (Blackwell, 2016),

[38] DuBois, ibid, 288.

[39] DuBois, ibid, 286.

[40] Clement Greenberg, “Toward a Newer Laocöon” (1940) in Perceptions and Judgements, 1939-1944, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 32.

[41] In addition to the point we make here, Butler sometimes uses fabric in the manner of what Nelson Goodman calls exemplification in that they are in fact what they represent.

[42] Bisa Butler, from her website: (accessed January 20, 2022).

[43] Erica Warren, “Rearranging Memory: Bisa Butler’s Portraits and the Discourse of Art History,” in Warren ed., ibid, 15. As implied in the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, we would add music to the list of painting, photography, and textiles.