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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.
About the artists:
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 Johnson is a visual artist and photographer from Chicago’s South Side Englewood neighborhood. In 2010, she helped co-found Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.) and is the lead co-founder of Englewood Arts Collective established in 2017. In the same year, she was featured in Chicago Magazine as a Chicagoan of the Year. Within her artistic practice, Tonika often explores urban segregation and documents the nuance and richness of the black community. Her work has been featured at Rootwork Gallery in Pilsen, the Chicago Cultural Center, Harold Washington Library Center and featured in the Chicago Reader.
Her multi-media project titled “Folded Map,” that illustrates Chicago’s residential segregation while bringing residents together to have a conversation, was exhibited at Loyola University’s 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 we are all 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
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Major funding for Bisa Butler: Portraits is contributed by the Cavigga Family Trust.
Additional support is provided by The Joyce Foundation and Darrel and Nickol Hackett.
Image: Bisa Butler. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 2019. Minneapolis Institute of Art; Promised gift on long-term loan from a private collection. © Bisa Butler. Photo by Margaret Fox.