From 2 Artists, 2 Ways to Tell Stories of Black America

This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, which focuses on how art endures and inspires, even in the darkest of times.

As museums are reopening this fall, the work of Black artists is prominently on display around the country, one result of a broad-based movement to feature diverse creators in a systemic and lasting way.

A sense that institutions are making up for lost time has added an element of urgency to the push.

As Erica Warren, an associate curator of textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago, put it: “We are overdue.”

Ms. Warren organized “Bisa Butler: Portraits,” opening Nov. 16 at the Art Institute. Ms. Butler, based in New Jersey, works in fabric, creating complex quilted textile portraits of what she calls the Black American story. It’s the museum’s first textile solo show for a Black female artist.

Ms. Butler shares a dealer, Claire Oliver Gallery of Harlem, with the artist Barbara Earl Thomas, who is having the most substantial show of her work yet at the Seattle Art Museum, in her hometown.

“Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence” features her striking and graphic cut paper works and opens Nov. 20, just a week after Ms. Butler’s show. It looks at how race informs our perception of innocence.

Both exhibitions — from artists who examine similar subjects, rendered in very different media — are evidence of how the art world is striving to spotlight diverse voices, and how museums and galleries have come in to alignment to support that goal.

The critical role of a gallery, nurturing and promoting artists and helping to sustain them during lean times so they can keep working, has only gotten more important.

Ms. Warren of the Art Institute said she discovered Ms. Butler’s work at Ms. Oliver’s booth at the Expo Chicago fair in 2018.

“I thought it was by far and away the best work at the fair,” Ms. Warren said.

Ms. Oliver, 56, is the first to say that her gallery is no Gagosian or Hauser & Wirth — the global powerhouses whose artists are frequently featured in museum shows, and who work to make that happen.

Credit…Jovelle Tamayo for The New York Times
Credit…Jovelle Tamayo for The New York Times

“We’re stealthy,” she said. “We fly under the radar.”

She founded her gallery 29 years ago in Philadelphia, and spent two decades in New York’s Chelsea before moving in February to Harlem. From the beginning, Ms. Oliver had a firm idea about whose work she wanted to show.

“When we started, I vowed to have more than 50 percent women,” she said. “And we’re about 75 percent now.”

Ms. Oliver has added to her goals over time. “We’ve also made a concerted effort to bring in more Black voices,” she said, especially since the Black Lives Matter movement has accelerated.

In these priorities, Ms. Oliver finds herself in alignment with prestigious museums that set the tone for the entire art world.

“I’ve talked to so many curators about this,” she said. “We see we have these big gaping voids in the collections, in the canon of art history, and they are trying to remedy that.”

Ms. Thomas, 71, has been featured in many exhibitions over the years and her profile is growing. She has a commission to design a set of windows for the dining hall of Grace Hopper College at Yale University that will go on view next year.

The Seattle Art Museum show is an apotheosis of sorts.

“What’s different is that I’m directing what it’s going to be,” Ms. Thomas said, alluding to the level of input she has had while working with the curator Catharina Manchanda. “I told them: ‘I have an idea and I want you to help me realize it.’”

Credit…via Claire Oliver Gallery; Spike Mafford
Credit…Claire Oliver Gallery; Spike Mafford

The subjects depicted are all Black children and Ms. Thomas knows most of them. The show includes three portraits on sandblasted glass, 10 cut-paper portraits and three handcrafted candelabras. There’s also a hanging sculpture made of hand-cut Tyvek, surrounded by Tyvek panels.

“How do we read faces — and what has culture put into our cup?” Ms. Thomas said of the show’s theme. “My stories are not epic. They are about the everyday.”

She cuts the paper works with a razor and then hand-tints them, and the effect is striking.

“I’m about the dazzle,” Ms. Thomas said. “I want to seduce with the figure. I don’t apologize for being graphic.”

She started working with Ms. Oliver in 2014. Though she was already known to the Seattle Art Museum, having a dealer based in New York, and a forthcoming project at Yale, will help give her “street cred, given that I’m not in the East,” Ms. Thomas said, referring to the art world’s center of gravity.

“Claire saw something in my work that people in my region haven’t always picked up on,” Ms. Thomas said. “She has an eye for people with a power mechanism.”

She added that there was a commonality between her own work and that of other artists that Ms. Oliver shows, including the textile work of Ms. Butler.

“There’s a devotion to materiality, and to really building things,” Ms. Thomas said.

Ms. Butler’s Chicago show, with 22 of her quilts and works by other artists who have influenced her, including the photographer Gordon Parks, is an ode to that city.

“I’m the ultimate Chicago fan,” said Ms. Butler, 47, who is based in West Orange, N.J.

“My heroes are people like Charles White,” she added, referring to the Chicago-born painter who was the subject of a 2018-19 posthumous traveling museum retrospective that many felt was long overdue. “I feel like the granddaughter to these artists.”

Image“The Safety Patrol” (2018) by Bisa Butler. 
Credit…Bisa Butler
Credit…Bisa Butler
Credit…Bisa Butler

Her interest in textiles started early. “I grew up sewing,” said Ms. Butler, who learned from her mother and grandmother during her New Jersey childhood. “My Barbies were decked out.”

After Howard University and a period of making works for friends and family, she became a professional artist around 2003. From the beginning, she wanted a wide audience for her work.

“When you’re in a segregated art world, you don’t realize it right away,” Ms. Butler said. “But I didn’t want to make art exclusively for Black people. My subject matter is Black, but I don’t only want to be in African-American museums or fairs.”

Things broadened for Ms. Butler “only when I met Claire,” she said. “It seems like the years before that didn’t count. Some people were saying, ‘Oh she’s an emerging artist.’ But I had been working for 20 years.”

In the Chicago show, “The Safety Patrol” (2018) — depicting a group of children who could have starred in one of Ms. Thomas’s works — was fashioned from cotton, wool and chiffon that has been quilted and appliquéd.

Ms. Butler’s projects often begin in black and white photographs, where she seeks a compelling image. The origin may be surprising, given how much color is in the finished work, but she said she preferred to begin with pure form, and then to add her own hues.

Ms. Warren of the Art Institute said that the use of textiles — not a dominant medium for contemporary artists, and one associated with women’s work — has additional meaning.

“She interrogates the history of the marginalization of her subjects, and she does it in a medium that has been marginalized, too,” Ms. Warren said.

Like Ms. Thomas, Ms. Butler has a humanistic approach that doesn’t dwell on conflict.

“I want to tell the story of Black America from the inside out,” Ms. Butler said. “My work is like a Black family’s photo album. You’re not going to see images of the worst day of life.”

With the opening of both the Chicago and Seattle shows, Ms. Butler said she recognizes a feeling of things clicking into place. She’s felt that before with Ms. Oliver.

“When Claire moved to Harlem, it just fit right,” Ms. Butler said. “It’s like when I touched a fabric, it felt right. Paint was not for me. Things align in the right time and space.”


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