Created by
Butler, Bisa, American, born 1973
Subject of
Tubman, Harriet, American, 1822 - 1913
cotton, silk and velvet
H x W x D: 90 3/4 × 64 1/2 × 1/4 in. (230.5 × 163.8 × 0.6 cm)
The artist, Bisa Butler, expands on her use of symbolism in the portrait:
“I used cool blues to communicate that Harriet Tubman was a person who had to hide, blend in, and escape detection in order to emancipate herself. The red fabric suggests her forceful personality, determination and will to be free. She was quoted as saying 'There are two things I’ve got a right to, and these are Death, or Liberty- one or the other I mean to have. No one will take me alive; I shall fight for my liberty, and when the time has come for me to go, the Lord will let them kill me.'
The sunflowers in the background have multiple meanings; one is to acknowledge Harriet Tubman’s reliance (and that of many people escaping slavery) on the North Star to help point the way towards freedom. The sun is also a star, and the sunflower symbolizes that guiding light. The sunflower is known as a spiritual and devotional flower because they follow the sun as it moves from East to West in the sky. The sunflowers appear to worship the sun and I use that to indicate Tubman’s devout faith.”
A quilted and appliquéd textile portrait of Harriet Tubman by Bisa Butler, based on the carte-de-visite photograph portrait of Tubman by Benjamin F. Powelson (NMAAHC 2017.30.47).
The quilt depicts Tubman, in multiple bright-colored fabrics, seated against a dark floral background. Tubman gazes directly at the viewer, her proper right arm on the back of the chair and her proper left hand in her lap. Her face and hands are shown in contrasting shades of blue and purple with rich reds, symbolizing Tubman’s coolness, calmness, and strength as well as her power and force. Her hair is made of a deep velvet cloth, soft and opulent to mimic the soft texture of some African American hair.
The intricately boned corset at her bust is composed of a black fabric with floral bouquets representing women as the source of life and infinity. Every flower is different as is every woman. There is a swath of orange fabric across the chest and a bright blue fabric along the center row of buttons, beneath the distinctive white collar. Yellow fabric with red birds denoting freedom compose the sleeves of Tubman’s dress. The wide, pleated skirt is comprised of fabric based on a combination of designs by women from the Congo River. At center of the skirt is a round section with a vibrant purple and orange floral motif set against a bright teal background. At bottom center of this section is an orange lion, an embodiment of Tubman herself. Surrounding the center section, the skirt has gold and orange ferns and palm fronds against a green background, the colors symbolizing African heritage, with the thick foliage at the bottom of the skirt gradually opening to a clearing at the top to signify a journey from turmoil to freedom. Along the hem of the skirt is an orange wave design to symbolize pain and turmoil yet small seeds grow upwards and become strong flowers, symbolic of strong women. The pleats or stripes on the skirt appear evocative of the fields of crops Tubman labored in.
Black and white kente fabric composes the chair upon which Tubman is seated, suggesting a royal throne and paying homage to the artist’s Ghanaian heritage. The dark background with purple sunflowers and blue dots, reminiscent of the night sky, signify Tubman’s travels in the night and her tremendous faith. At the bottom right, embroidered in orange thread, is the artist's signature [Bisa Butler]. The same fabric as the skirt is used as a binding around the outer edge of the quilt.
Cultural Place
Ghana, West Africa, Africa
Congo River, West Africa, Africa
United States, North and Central America
Visual Arts
Decorative Arts, Craft, and Design
Textiles and Quilts
textile art (visual works)
appliqué (textile visual works)
African diaspora
Textile design
Credit Line
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, purchased through the American Women's History Initiative Acquisitions Pool, administered by the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative
Object number
Restrictions & Rights
© Bisa Butler
Permission required for use. Proper usage is the responsibility of the user.

Cataloging is an ongoing process and we may update this record as we conduct additional research and review. If you have more information about this object, please contact us at

Share this page