A ONE-OF-A-KIND QUILT by Bisa Butler graces the cover of the forthcoming Essence magazine. The specially commissioned quilt illustrates the magazine’s May/June 2021 edition. Dedicated to “The Year that Changed the World,” the issue looks back at the past year, which brought political unrest, police brutality, economic inequality, and a global pandemic.

Butler is known for mixing fabrics and patterns to create layered works inspired by photographs. Her highly skilled textile practice explores Black identity and the American experience through portraiture.



The cover image is based on a picture of Nilah Bogar by Butler’s friend Paul Chinnery, a photographer who works out of New York and New Jersey. In 2016, Chinnery did a photoshoot with the New Jersey rapper, whose stage name is King Nilah. Infused with color, the quilted and appliquéd work transformed the photographic headshot into a powerful textile portrait of a woman with hair pulled back into two long braids.

Profoundly titled “Racism Is So American That When You Protest It, People Think You Are Protesting America,” Butler provided some background about the work on Instagram. “I needed to find a way to say what we are feeling and experiencing collectively. One image that can express hope, strength, resilience, and determination,” the artist wrote.

“I needed to find a way to say what we are feeling and experiencing collectively. One image that can express hope, strength, resilience, and determination.” — Bisa Butler

Fraught with challenges and a source of strength and transformation, the past year was defined by global protests and a racial reckoning in the wake of the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black people; isolation and countless deaths due to COVID-19 that highlighted America’s trenchant health disparities and healthcare inequality; and a contentious 2020 election and the criminal behavior that followed by elected officials and their supporters who lied about the outcome, sought to disenfranchise (mostly Black) voters, and take over the U.S. Capitol building.

Essence gathered journalists, activists, artists, and writers to weigh in. The issue explores the collective experience of an all-consuming emotional, dramatic, economically uncertain, and lethal year. Contributors include Tamika Mallory, Abby Phillip, Clint Smith, Kovie Biakolo, Robin Allison Davis, Kimberly Latrice Jones, and Lynee Vanee Bogues.

The project marks the first time Essence magazine has commissioned an original quilt work to illustrate its cover. Butler shared the symbolism of her creative choices.

“The colors chosen represent passion and power in hot pinks and fuchsia along with the despair and loss in blues and indigos. Dutch wax, African wax, South African shwe-shwe, ice dyed cotton and silk are layered and quilted so that she is made up of the cloth of Africa her ancestral homeland,” the artist wrote. In addition, she depicted her subject wearing a top made of a mosaic of images from the summer 2020 racial justice protests.

Butler has also illustrated covers of Juxtapoz (Fall 2020) and Time magazines. Her portrait of Porche Bennett-Bey was one of Times’s 2020 Persons of the Year covers in December (Kenosha, Wisc. activist Bennett-Bay was named Guardian of the Year).

In March 2020, Butler was invited to depict Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai for a special Time project recognizing 100 years of influential women. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement and in 2004 became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Bisa Butler: Portraits,” the artist’s first solo museum exhibition is currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago. CT


COVER IMAGE: BISA BUTLER, “Racism Is So American That When You Protest It, People Think You Are Protesting America,” 2021 (silk, cotton, velvet, lace, photo transfers on cotton, and acrylic, quilted and appliquéd). | Commissioned for Essence, May/June 2021


UPDATE (05/19/21): Added more information about the source photograph and subject (rapper King Nilah).


FIND MORE Earlier this year, Essence commissioned Lorna Simpson to create a cover image of Rihanna

FIND MORE Essence reports on how King Nilah’s headshot landed her on the cover of the magazine years later


The fully illustrated catalog “Bisa Butler: Portraits” documents the artist’s first solo museum exhibition. The cover of “Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement,” the forthcoming memoir by #metoo movement founder Tarana Burke is illustrated by Bisa Butler.


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