Textile Art & Racial Identity
In honor of the recent opening of the much-anticipated Bisa Butler exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago and with Black History Month having just wrapped up, we at MIR Appraisal Services thought it would be appropriate to consider the history of textiles in African and African American art and highlight some of the contemporary Black artists who use it as an integral part of their work.
Textile has been a rich and important cultural tradition with a long history throughout different regions and peoples of Africa, with many distinctive styles and techniques. Weaving is one of the most used methods on the continent. Strip woven kente cloth produced by the Asante and Ewe in Ghana and Togo is one of the most well-known types of cloth from Africa. It was traditionally worn by royalty, though it can be found amongst the general population today. Cotton fabric is woven in Ethiopia; bark cloth made from fig trees is made in Central Africa and Madagascar produces some of the most prestigious silks. Dyeing cloth is also a prominent feature of African textile, the most common of which is indigo dye, which has come to signify wealth and abundance, especially in West Africa. Beadwork is common in Eastern and Southern Africa.
The fabrication of textiles by African Americans, particularly quiltmaking, is inexplicably tied with slavery. Enslaved black women living in wealthy households became quite adept at quiltmaking, learning to spin, weave, and sew. After the Civil War, many black women continued to make quilts as a way to earn money, and passed on their knowledge and skill to each subsequent generation. A quilt made by Harriet Powers around 1885 housed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is a testament to the skill of these women.
Bisa Butler is an artist whose quilted portraiture exploded onto the scene this past summer of 2020 as a direct result of the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd and the push for racial justice, a movement which emphasized shining a light on contemporary Black artists. Now, after a delayed opening due to COVID-19, Bisa Butler is having her first museum exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, which started in February. This kind of blockbuster exhibition at a major world-class museum for a textile artist, especially a quilter, is quite rare, and is a testament to the power and popularity Butler’s work has garnered in a short amount of time.
Bisa Butler makes life-size quilted portraits of Black people based off vintage black and white photographs that she finds from the National Archives, including photos taken by Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee. The fabrics she uses, which are stitched together using an applique method, consists of bold, colorful swatches of Dutch wax prints, kente cloth, and West African wax prints, a direct reference to the African descent of the subjects. Butler’s work is very much about Black identity, a way to reimagine historical narratives and give a sense of dignity to the Black community, all with a distinctly contemporary aesthetic. Butler’s work is considered quite revolutionary because it is a fusion of the traditionally African American craft of quiltmaking with the traditionally upper class European fine art of portraiture. Butler often positions her figures head-on, which is unusual in portraiture because the mechanics are more difficult to do correctly, yet by doing so Butler forces the viewer to look at the subject eye-to-eye. In this way, Butler ensures that, “people will be confronted with someone who is so human you must see them as equal…[her] work proclaims that Black people should be seen, regarded, and treated as equals”. Overall, Butler’s art is an achievement because it simultaneously uplifts the practice of quiltmaking into a fine art and affirms the humanity of her black subjects.
Yinka Shonibare CBE
Yinka Shonibare CBE is a British-Nigerian artist known for sculptural groups consisting of headless mannequins clothed in elaborate Victorian colonial style outfits made of Dutch wax pattern fabric. This type of fabric, also known as batik, was originally from Indonesia, though the Dutch brought it to Africa (hence the name) is now very much associated with West Africa, and is often worn by members of the diaspora as an expression of identity. This slippery cultural history of batik strongly appealed to Shonibare, as his art explores the idea of postcolonial cultural hybrids. Though Shonibare intentionally leaves the mannequins headless as a way to try to obscure race, racial identity, or the complexity thereof, is an integral component of his work. The combination of a traditionally African fabric made into traditionally European fashion perfectly embodies this notion, allowing the artist to explore layers of entanglement that comprise contemporary cultural identity in a globalized world. Shonibare’s installation tableaux have a notably theatrical quality, underlying the artist’s belief that identity is merely a construct. Additionally, by swapping out the silks and satins that normally would have made these upper-class garments with fabrics worn by lower class immigrants, Shonibare incorporates critiques of class and social status into his work. Adding to the juxtaposition, Shonibare often poses his mannequins as exact quotations of figures in the paintings of historically significant European artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Francisco de Goya, Thomas Gainsborough and Jean-Honore Fragonard. While his art comments on some pretty serious subjects such as race, class, colonization, and globalization, there is an element of whimsy to Shonibare’s work, which has made it enormously popular among both art critics and the general public, and indeed, his art is held the collections of major museums around the world.
Nick Cave is a Chicago-based artist whose work combines a wide variety of mediums including sculpture, fashion, and performance, though he is most widely known for his Soundsuits. These Soundsuits, of which Cave has made over 500, are full bodied costumes composed of an amalgamation of found materials designed to create a certain sound when moved in by the wearer. While it is not uncommon to see the Soundsuits silently displayed on mannequins in museums, the true essence of the Soundsuit comes from their use in performance. During these performances, the wearers dance around in a gleeful frenzy to draw the suit’s sound out to its full effect. Both the performances and the visual aesthetic of the suits themselves are reminiscent of shamanism, and call to mind the type of regalia and ritual ceremonies that are found in many cultures throughout Africa. As playful as the suits may be outwardly, the catalyst for their creation is anything but. Cave originally conceived of the idea of the Soundsuits in reaction to the Los Angeles Police’s beating of Rodney King in 1991, leaving Cave to feel that he was living in a different world, one where his very humanity was called into question. As a result, Cave began collecting items that were discarded or considered worthless, eventually combining them into the Soundsuits. By covering the wearer’s entire body, the suits obscure any indicators of race, gender, or class, thereby upending any notions of identity. They are an expression of the vulnerability Cave feels as a Black man and a physical manifestation of the psychological adjustments black Americans have to make in order to survive in a racist society. Similar to Bisa Butler, Cave’s work helps to uplift traditional handicrafts such as beadwork and sewing to the realm of fine art.
El Anatsui is a Ghanian artist, and though he does not typically work with fabric he is still often labeled as a textile artist. That is because Anatsui’s work consists of monumental, almost sculptural tapestries composed of small pieces of flattened metal caps from liquor bottles, painstakingly stitched together with copper thread to form the whole. Indeed, Anatsui challenges the norms of both textile and sculpture, creating malleable structures that can adapt to their surroundings, just as easily covering a wall as hanging over a hedge or from the roof of a building. In fact, Anatsui does not provide any specific instructions on how to hang his pieces, leaving it up to the discretion of the institution. In this way, each piece takes on a life of its own, never exhibited the exact same way twice. The renowned art critic Roberta Smith commented about this inability to strictly define Anatsui’s work, saying “...the works evoke lace but also chain mail; quilts but also animal hides; garments but also mosaic, not to mention the rich ceremonial cloths of numerous cultures. Their drapes and folds have a voluptuous sculptural presence, but also an undeniably glamorous bravado”. Having come from an Ewe weaving family, the aesthetics of Anatsui’s metal textiles are derived from the strips of kente cloth famous throughout Ghana, though he never actually learned to weave kente himself. Anatsui prefers using found objects because they have a history of use in real life and are therefore relatable. Found objects are also consistent with traditional African art, made from wood, plants, animal hides and feathers that people found around them. The bottle caps themselves are also a reference to the history of Africa, as alcohol was one of the goods that was shipped along the transatlantic slave trade routes. In this way, Anatsui contends with colonialism and connections between consumption and waste. Anatsui’s work is compelling because it simultaneously is rooted in African tradition, yet also transcends time and place.
After examining the work of these four artists, several connecting themes emerge that speak to the artists’ experiences as Black people, either as an African or a member of the African diaspora. Interestingly, Butler, Shonibare, Cave, and Anatsui all explore the way in which textile can be both separate from and connected to the identity of the wearer, especially when it comes to racial identity. They also, in their own unique way, expand the medium of fabric beyond functional use as clothing, and stretch the definition of what textile art, and “high art” in general, should include. The use of foreign and found material is an integral part of their work too, and explores the connection between economics and race. It will be interesting to follow the careers of these established textile artists, as well as see how textile art progresses into the future with a new generation of artists.
Berk, Anne. “Material Matters: El Anatsui”. Sculpture Nature. https://www.sculpturenature.com/en/material-matters-el-anatsui/ Accessed 17 Feb 2021.
Dunne, Aidan. “Visual Art Round-Up: Yinka Shonibare’s Headless Mannequins”. The Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/art-and-design/visual-art/visual-art-round-up-yinka-shonibare-s-headless-mannequins-1.2541278 Accessed 17 Feb 2021.
“El Anatsui”. Jack Shainman. https://jackshainman.com/artists/el_anatsui Accessed 21 Feb 2021.
Logan, Liz. “Artist Bisa Butler Stitches Together The African American Experience”. Smithsonian Magazine. July 24, 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/bisa-butler-stitches-together-quilts-african-american-experience-180975397/ Accessed 14 Feb 2021.
O’Grady, Megan. “Nick Cave”. The Greats. October 18, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/15/t-magazine/nick-cave-artist.html Accessed 14 Feb 2021.
Visona, Monica Blackmun, Robin Poyner, and Herbert M. Cole. A History of Art in Africa. Pearson Prentice Hall. 2008.
Warren, Erica. “The People of Bisa Butler’s Portraits”. The Art Institute of Chicago. November 17, 2020. https://www.artic.edu/articles/858/the-people-of-bisa-butlers-portraits Accessed 14 Feb 2021.
Image "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Bisa Butler. Image Credit: Ryan Dickey
Image "How to Blow Up Two Heads At Once (Ladies)" by Yinka Shonibare, 2006.
Image Compilation of various Nick Cave Soundsuits.
Image "Danu" by El Anatsui, 2006. Image Credit: John Althouse Cohen