Art beyond boundaries
27 January 2016
A conversation with Pakistani artist Faiza Butt
The ‘Sensation’ moment for Pakistani art may have passed with ‘Hanging Fire’ at the Asia Society in New York in 2009 where, to neologise, YPAs (Young Pakistani Artists) had the opportunity to display their version of the errant, eye-catching tactics the YBAs (Young British Artists) so effectively tried in the 1990s: Rashid Rana’s Persian carpet, which on closer inspection transforms into thousands of miniscule images of slaughter in abattoirs; Huma Mulji’s taxidermic cows dangling from pylons or fluted, ionic columns; Imran Qureshi’s seemingly harmless but subliminally threatening bearded men; Anwar Saeed’s stylised homoerotic images of men in langots; and Arif Mahmood’s consternation-filling, gun-toting urchin on a Karachi beach – but, seven years on, its progenitors continue to be in fine fettle.
Faiza Butt was one of the artists who were properly launched into the Western art stratosphere with this exhibition in New York. She is now represented by art galleries Rossi and Rossi and Grosvenor Gallery in London. Butt will, however, have no truck with my coinage “Young Pakistani Artist”, a term she not only derides but chides me for using. Yet it is convenient shorthand, one she resorts to herself, unknowingly, during our conversation. She would much rather I call her an artist from Pakistan. She reasons that being called a Pakistani artist limits the purview of artists from the region. During our somewhat unorthodox interview in London, perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the world, she often reiterates that her concerns transcend national boundaries. “It is very important to me that what I make should have universality and no matter where you display it, people should be able to relate to it and read it. It shouldn’t be framed culturally as Pakistani or Indian art.”
To compare Butt’s work to that of American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe may seem perverse or at the very least bizarre – Butt’s work is not nearly as obsessed with the phallic – but given her distaste of boundaries, perhaps we could hazard inviting the comparison. The biggest similarity, albeit a philosophical one, is that like Mapplethorpe, Butt is a voluptuary and espouses the cult of beauty, even if the ways in which they do so is vastly different given their respective milieux. Photography has always been a flattering art. Mapplethorpe once said that all his photographs were altars. It can be contended that so are many of Butt’s works – altars to the myth of creation. The comparison should also be acceptable, considering her images veer between photography and painting. Indeed, in many instances, she uses photographs as raw material for the images she then proceeds to cull out of them with her pointillistic technique, which is an extension of Mughal miniature painting, the genre she cut her teeth on at National College of Arts, Lahore. She speaks of the artistic ferment of the institution and lauds the team that taught her there. The careers of several of her very talented contemporaries were launched in simultaneity; today they represent Pakistan internationally in exhibitions at art galleries, museums and fairs the world over.
Butt’s work is unashamedly beautiful, and at times, brings to mind the American sculptor Dale Chihuly’s gorgeous glass sculpture
“It’s a very strange story that the most known artists happened to be in our year and this was the early 90s at NCA. I look back and reflect on it: people like Bani Abidi, Risham Syed, Farida Batool, myself, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Rashid Rana. Shahzia Sikandar was our senior. So what was going on? I think it had to do with the fact that we had the best faculty that NCA has ever seen in its history. We had Professor Salima Hashmi just come back from Rhode Island School of Design; Quddus Mirza just back from the Royal College having done his masters in painting; we had Zahoor ul Akhlaq; we had Colin David coming in and out; we had Saeed Akhtar teaching drawing; we had this legend, Mian Salahuddin, in the ceramics department,” says Butt.
She adds, “We had this amazing wealth of tutors around us and the moment they recognised talent, they would support that student all the way, beyond college hours. You could show up at their houses and engage them in debates. So that mentoring, that patronage, that tuition – I don’t know how else to put it – was vital to all these people at NCA.”
The Slade School of Fine Arts, incidentally, also the alma mater of Shakir Ali, one of the first modernists and early principals of the NCA (formerly the Mayo School of Art), was however a culture shock for Butt. She had to adjust to a style of teaching which placed the responsibility of learning squarely on the students’ shoulders and felt detached. However, she clearly rose to the challenge, graduating with a distinction; an accolade rarely given to an ethnic student.
“Slade was very Eurocentric and a highly self-referential environment, and the moment they found out that I was from Pakistan they started to frame me – I had stupid questions asked all the time. My concerns were feminist and feminism was an ‘F’ word. They were very suspicious of anything to do with politics. The New York School was romanticised and the New York School is a very macho school of painting – if you think of rockstars like de Kooning and Jackson Pollock; not to forget that this school was projected in the rivalry during the cold war with the USSR.
“So I thought, I’m going to reject the art history of the West as the art history of the world, and I tried to bring elements which had to do with my own past, where I come from; and if you roughly divide East and West, Western paintings tend to be oil on canvas because that was the natural material available here because of the cold environment; Eastern works – miniatures and water colours – tend to be water on paper. So I thought I was going to work on paper. But I also felt works done on paper had less value than works done on canvas; the works on paper were as if for the bottom drawer – something preparatory and, once again, because of being in London and this idea that your work should be reflective of the times in which you’re living rather than backward looking, I thought, instead of working on paper, I’ll work on a two-dimensional surface.
“Stretched canvas classifies as an object because it has depth, as a three-dimensional thing. So I found polyester films which architects use to draw on called mylar – they’re drafting films,” Butt explains. “It’s polyester film but it’s still two-dimensional and what I draw with is ink; it’s these brushes which have Indian ink in them and I thought of the difference between a painting and a drawing. The difference is: painting is done with paint and drawing is linear – linear means it starts with a line. If you dissect a line, the starting point of a line is a dot and they say when a dot goes for a walk it creates a line. So my drawings are those dots replicating, one on top of another, like the par dokht of miniature; like the pixels of a photograph. I saturate those dots so that they look like paint – [creating the] density of colour, like paint. They’re as ambitious as painting or they’re as labour-intensive so that they’re technically drawings. So I’m an artist who draws. I do digital works; I make lightboxes. I make new media works as well but the imagery is derivative of journalistic photography.
“I scavenge images which are in today’s newspaper and I look at photographs because photography which is for the masses – journalistic photography – is getting very, very smart and its purpose is to influence. Advertisers know that between two stops on the underground, people don’t have the time to read a whole newspaper. So they influence you with photography that generates fictional narratives, like when someone is bearded, they give you a mugshot which makes him look like a criminal. Angelina Jolie is waving to a crowd of refugees or David Cameron is giving a speech – they are stills from a movie and contain a narrative. I take these photographs because they already have the potential to be manipulated. I then organise them in my work and create a bigger picture.”
Butt may decry marketing’s role in the making of the brash, business-minded figurehead of the YBA generation, but the transverse sections of agate she uses as background to her portraits of young men and children from conflict zones in her new work had a hypnotic effect on me; similar to my first encounter with Damien Hirst’s elaborate gargantuan butterfly canvases (‘Devotion’; ‘Rapture’; ‘Amazing Revelations’, 2003). Like Hirst, Butt has assistance, but unlike him, there is just one assistant she relies on who – largely due to the complex, labour-intensive nature of her work – is restricted to dealing with the administrivia of her production.
Butt’s work is unashamedly beautiful, and at times, brings to mind the American sculptor Dale Chihuly’s gorgeous glass sculpture; her lightboxes are a labour of love like his serpentine conglomerations of coloured Murano glass. In its profligacy of hue and its verve of composition – Butt calls it “noisy” – it resembles the works of the British artist-duo Gilbert and George (two men but one artist). I would liken her older and recent work to the pair’s creations, particularly their postmodern stain-glass window works from the mid- to the late 1980s. Mapplethorpe, Hirst and Chihuly for beauty, and Gilbert and George for politics; would the sum of that formidable mix be Butt? Not quite. The similarities extend to their collection and use of images and digital work but Butt generally works on a smaller canvas, often using light boxes. Incidentally, the two (Gilbert and George) are her East London neighbours. She tells me that “the area has the highest number of artists per square-mile anywhere in Britain.”
The cosmological idea that we are all part of everything – of the universe – which is a major concern of her recent work has a precedent in their work. Her images blaspheme like theirs though with less brazen effrontery. They use bodily fluids – urine, semen, excrement; Butt may not want to be called a Pakistani artist but, paradoxically, the country’s social norms and codes temper the extent to which she can vociferate against them. In one of her works, she shows a pendant that reads “Allah”, a piece of Muslim kitsch, come out of a luminous, red-lipsticked mouth and leaves it at that – an image mutinous enough in itself. To have made it more literal would have been a heresy taken too far.
As a woman artist from Pakistan, she can be a renegade within limits one would imagine. The mouth with the Allah is her cross made of excrement, without flagging it, and her lightboxes of mullahs and bearded Taliban, the equivalent of Gilbert and George’s bomb pictures. But a bejewelled dildo I come across in one of her earlier works, during my research, contradicts such assertions of restraint. The mind reels at how she manages to avoid membership of the illustrious group from Southasia that has had fatwas slapped down on them.
When I meet and discuss my comparisons with her, she corrects me and says that while my conclusions may be true in some measure, she does not seek to offend anyone’s religious sentiments with her art. She believes that in order to be truly secular you have to respect other people’s opinions.
Art with a purpose is Butt’s mantra, an outcome of her formative years at NCA, which she credits to Salima Hashmi’s tutelage, in particular, and the challenges of the years of dictatorship she lived through before her move to London. “They say art should be about good politics not represent politics. Artists are sensitive people; they start observing things which others tend to overlook. They should have a moral sense of fairness regardless of which ethnic, cultural or social group they belong to. There are a lot of artists whose subject of work is process but that leaves me cold. I think coming from Pakistan, having grown up during the Zia years, and then [experiencing] one dictatorship after another and not having a linear art history to fall on behind me, my art is not self-referential.”
if your work would be just that, the origin of that intention or the intention itself, then it would lean towards what is regarded as propaganda and it would lack depth
Gilbert and George’s art wrestles with what it is to live in the modern, vibrant, seductive, tension-ridden metropolis that is London. Living in Lahore and later in London, has shaped Butt’s artistic sensibility somewhat similarly. She says, “I’m a person who has always been based in metropolises; urban environments where there is this whole chemistry of humans packed together, and capitalism always has its focus on cities – that’s where the buying power is.” She explains, “I look at how the instruments of power and control work; how they divide us; where they want to assimilate us; how they form tribes; where they create walls and within that I work with cross-cultural issues, gender issues and issues to do with art history so I guess my sources of inspiration are very broad and varied. Someone once said that they thought my work was a man’s work and I thought that was the best compliment I ever received – that my work is not just beyond Pakistani and European; that it is beyond gender as well.”
But how does a particular work start for her? “It begins with intention and then one feels passionate about that intention or that moment of motivation and wants to convey it or have it validated in a work of art. But having said that, if your work would be just that, the origin of that intention or the intention itself, then it would lean towards what is regarded as propaganda and it would lack depth. It could appear as something which is desperately trying to influence. So the challenge is, how do you do it well so that it has meaning yet it becomes broader?”
“What I try to do is that when I see something that is wrong or right and feel that it has potential to be turned into a piece of art, I make the idea or intention the central space of my work. I then surround it with codes and symbols which extend the idea and bring depth to it or universality to it so that if someone looks at it they are intrigued. When you make a piece of art, it should be like a mirror in which the other person sees their own reflection and that is the biggest challenge or measure of success of a work of art. If a work of art angers you or you hate or love it that means that work has succeeded. If something you see leaves you cold and you move on, that means it hasn’t engaged you; it lacked power. So what I do is I try to start with an intention, clarity of intention. Then again if that intention is very easy to read and is linear, it wouldn’t be art. Art has to have mystique. These are the lines that divide art from advertising and propaganda and other mediums.”
I ask her about the phenomenal prices that artists of her generation, herself included, are commanding and how that squares with her politics. Shouldn’t art be made more accessible for the ordinary man? Butt is unflappable.
“Traditionally, historically, art has only flourished through patronage. Once you have the sort of disposable income where you want to surround yourself with beautiful things then that in itself feeds the growth of art because you are patronising art and artists are flourishing. I guess there is the role of the auction house here as well: how prices are manipulated; how bubbles are created and how they burst and how that influences the wider market. Sometimes I wish I knew more about all that but I don’t want any of that to influence me. I have a very purist, idealist approach towards how art should be and how it should be made and I have also discovered that art that has been made with that spirit is very transparent, has a transparent power and speaks for itself and that’s why I am suspicious of artists where I see that missing.”
However, she adds, “As I said, the possession of art is the domain of the culturally enlightened and cultural enlightenment comes with exposure and knowledge. We often see that people who are not very wealthy are not necessarily driven to acquire expensive things: they know they can’t have a very expensive car, a diamond ring or a wonderful piece of art but it’s very important that they can see it, appreciate it and they have access to it and for that it’s very important that we have more public spaces, that we create more public art venues or art fairs that are open to the public – like the Indian Art Fair which always undersells but is the biggest fair in terms of the number of people who walk through the door to look at art. It shows you that although it’s not doing business, it is serving the purpose of bringing art to a bigger audience.”
When I ask her about her craft, Butt starts with a preamble about her formative years at the NCA. “NCA is a very unique place because we didn’t have the anxieties of art history behind us. It was founded by the British in 1875 – Rudyard Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling was its first principal. The artists were trained in traditional ways and the focus was craft and craftsmanship. There was a lot of emphasis on learning the basics, to develop the elementary tools first and move on to the more refined or abstract ideas later.
“In my first year, we were given intensive training in drawing and draughting and the ideal of observational work, of drawing from nature or discovering and exploiting mediums, was paramount. From that stage on, drawing remained a strong area of interest for me. The fact is that even if you draw representationally which means copying from life, it’s never life that you’re replicating; it’s always a memory of that life that you’re replicating. I don’t draw like a machine. I look at something, I remember it and I regurgitate it which means it comes through the filter of my memory; hence it’s special, it’s not like a photograph and I believe we live in this photo-saturated age that makes drawing special again. It’s this touch of the human hand which continues to move me.
“So the first year was all about the rigour of drawing. In the second year, I took miniature painting as an option. Once again, the focus was on the technique. Miniature painting is a very measured discipline. You make everything by hand: you make your own brushes; you make your own paints; you use sea shells for palette; you make your own paper. So you were given the basics of how you construct something and then you could turn it into something else.”
On the nature of her craft, she says, “My work is very labour-intensive and it’s very well-crafted and I always remind people that they’re not paintings, they’re drawings; technically, they’re drawings and very ambitious drawings that rival painting. They’re actually ink drawings on polyester film and are done with these pens and you keep putting layer upon layer. I want them to be something between a miniature and a photograph in terms of their composition just like a miniature is tiny strokes, one on top of another to create saturation of colour; you see the same idea at work in a photograph: there is this primary and secondary layer and you get the colour if you dissect the pixel.
“The type of art that always amazes me is that which draws from tradition but talks with a contemporary language. There is something almost sacred about it. I took something from my past and something that was surrounding me and created something that was distinctly my own and I was very well received. I made my point. I got myself heard. It was valid and it was relevant. So that’s how I classify myself as an artist. Everything I make has some sort of relationship with light. It’s something that shines, so there’s some sort of a connection there.”
I ask her about her relation with the country she left for the West: “I have a deep connection with the place. Pakistan has always been in the press for some reason. Since I left and 9/11 happened and this whole hunt for terrorism began and the ensuing Islamophobia, I’m beginning to analyse the country through a different mindset. I used to be very critical of it and when I left, I was very angry. I had a list of things that were wrong with it and never wanted to go back. But the more I see propaganda and how it influences people – about certain countries, certain faith groups, certain regions – I sort of take it upon myself to try to bring something to my work which is about looking at things fairly or assessing things beyond.”
About influences, national and international, Butt says that “Pakistani art is on the international platform now. It’s finally being recognised and that recognition is very seductive for the young artists there. They’re working even harder and coming up with stronger ideas and the secret lies in the art education which is very strong, probably the best in Southasia. Apart from NCA, we have BNU. (Beaconhouse National University) also in Lahore. Indus in Karachi is doing its bit as well. We also have Hunerkada in Islamabad and the Punjab University, Fine Arts department. Fine Art education seems to be on the rise.
“As I said, the turmoil that Pakistan has been going through has sharpened the artists’ senses. Every time I call back and talk to relatives, frankly, there tends to be some tragic news. And, sadly, that seems to be the norm that people live with; they share sad stories and if it’s not that then it’s some hardship: we don’t have gas, we don’t have light, we don’t have water. Artists have imbibed all this and it’s started cropping up in their work in a very sophisticated manner and because it is being filtered through an artistic language, that grind, that suffering brings power to the work. That is why people all over the world are looking at it, relating to it, understanding it and appreciating it.
“I have favourites in Pakistan – some of them are known; some less so. I love all my contemporaries – I am great friends with Rashid (Rana), with Imran (Qureshi). Actually, my favourite artist is one of the least known who is based in India and is my best friend, Masooma Syed; then Ruby Chishti who is based in New York. Then there’s a filmmaker, Rabia Hassan. She’s the daughter of the Pakistani screen legend, Rani. She works with feminist issues, recalls her mother’s life and looks at her old movies. She reconstructs them and makes very interesting social statements. There’s Aisha Abid Hussain, a photographer, who studied here at Goldsmiths; then there’s Mehreen Murtaza who was at the Sharjah Biennale recently and has shown worldwide.
“In the West, when I was at Slade, I was always interested in discussions to do with painting – its hierarchy; how to break that mould to take painting forward; to discuss that and issues of power surrounding painting, so I am a big admirer of Peter Doig, who is a Scottish-Canadian painter. Gerhard Richter had a big influence on me. By looking at his technique, I learned how to look at photography and its influence on painting. He painted the photograph rather than painting from a photograph and documented the process of photography when it goes through painting – very interesting connection. I am a big admirer of the popular movement. You see all the major art movements after World War II come from the US – from the East Coast. So there are a lot of artists from within that span of history that I admire.”
Butt herself is at the helm of various initiatives to promote art in Pakistan. She is very excited about the inaugural Lahore Biennale which is due to take place in 2016. “It’s going to happen for the first time. I’ve been very actively involved; I’ve done what I can to volunteer, to organise the team, to give them ideas, support them where I can.”
“I am designing a book cover for H. M. Naqvi’s second book and that book is… full of ideas. I think it was in a discussion that he said that the miracle wasn’t that Moses parted the sea; the miracle is the human imagination that comes up with the stories so that we can make sense of who we are. It really inspired me. I grew up watching my father, the head of the family, his nose in a book all the time and the main furnishing of our very modest house was books so books are very dear to me.”
I ask her what has been her biggest moment of vindication. “I was invited to this debate on censorship recently in Nottingham and I realised that under the guise of the idea of ‘censorship’ as opposed to ‘freedom of speech’ all they wanted to do was reinforce this idea of Charlie Hebdo and Islam and so many cliches the tabloids were already discussing and I put my foot down and kept trying to point out that it’s bigger than that. We are so focused on the small villains that there are bigger villains who we’re forgetting about. That was a great moment of vindication because it directly connected to my work which was being played in the background – we had two hundred people as the audience.”
I meant professionally, I clarify. “I think showing at the Venice Biennale was very prestigious because not many Pakistani artists have shown there; and being on the cover of the book for ‘Hanging Fire’ under the aegis of Asia Society was also something I felt very proud of.”
Finally, I try to put her on the spot: Pakistan or Britain? With the alacrity of a hand-held fish, she slithers out of my attempt to catch her out. “The globe. This universe. This one spirit that connects us.”
~ Faiza Butt’s work will feature in the group show ‘Subh-e-Azadi’ (after Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem) curated by Salima Hashmi to be held with the support of Devi Art Foundation at Gujral House, Delhi in January 2016.
Her solo show ‘Observable’ opens at the Inga Gallery in Tel Aviv on 25 March 2016.
Butt’s work will also feature in a solo booth for Rossi and Rossi Gallery in London at ART16 between 20-22 May 2016.
‘Paracosm’ – her mid-career retrospective touring the UK – will re-open at the Attenborough Centre, University of Leicester in September 2016.
~Nauman Khalid is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster. He has taught postcolonial literature and theory at Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom. He has written for the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Manchester Evening News, the Big Issue in the North and the literary journal Wasafiri, and has presented on BBC Radio and Pakistan Radio and Television.