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Toledo Museum of Art acquires major new work by contemporary artist Bisa Butler
Bisa Butler, The Storm, the Whirlwind, and the Earthquake (2020).

TOLEDO, OH.- The Toledo Museum of Art has added a monumental quilted portrait of the 19th-century abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass by acclaimed contemporary artist Bisa Butler to its collection. The new work, The Storm, the Whirlwind, and the Earthquake (2020) is a tour-de-force composition made entirely of quilted and appliqued cotton, silk, wool and velvet, depicting Douglass at full-length human scale against a vibrant patterned background.

Born in 1973 in Orange, New Jersey, and currently living and working in West Orange, Butler studied fine art at Howard University and subsequently earned a master’s degree in art education from Montclair State University. Prior to turning to artmaking full time, Butler taught art in the South Orange and Maplewood, New Jersey public schools. Though her training focused on painting, Butler discovered that quiltmaking and fiber art allowed her to more fully articulate, reclaim and honor the countless contributions and untold histories of African Americans. Butler learned to sew from her mother and grandmother long before she began to paint. Employing wax-printed fabrics from Ghana, her father’s homeland, as well as kente cloth and Dutch wax prints, Butler engages in a meaningful and dynamic conversation with traditional African textiles. The artist also builds upon the legacy of African American quiltmaking, feminist craft strategies of the 1970s and 80s, and the collage techniques of Romare Bearden.

“In my work, I am telling the story – this African American side – of the American life. History is the story of men and women, but the narrative is controlled by those who hold the pen. My community has been marginalized for hundreds of years. While we have been right beside our white counterparts experiencing and creating history, our contributions and perspectives have been ignored, unrecorded and lost,” states Butler.

Brimming with vitality, dignity and power, the life-sized figures in Butler’s painterly textiles connect with viewers eye-to-eye, conveying a sense of shared humanity and mutual respect. The artist’s creative process consists of mining archival photographs of African Americans, recreating the forgotten faces and unsung personalities through methodical planning and layering of vibrant colors and textures of fabric and ultimately sewing the final quilt into place. “I represent all of my figures with dignity and regal opulence because that is my actual perspective of humanity,” says Butler.

After escaping slavery, Douglass (1817-1895) became an influential orator, writer and leader of the abolitionist movement. The work’s title references a famous line from a July 5, 1852 speech, in which Douglass, alluding to a July 4 pyrotechnic display, admonished the celebration of freedom during a time of slavery: “It is not the light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” Douglass was the most photographed person of the 19th century, and his likeness in this quilt is a composite of several photographic sources, which captures the subject’s conviction and perseverance.

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