ArtNow: How is the miniature in your paintings perceived by viewers in the west? I have noticed that audiences are so caught up with the technique and its exoticism that they rarely engage with the cerebral content of the work. Is this true?
Ambreen Butt: Miniature painting, as you know, is very distinct in its technique and character, it brings the viewer to the core by way of intimacy and seduction. It also equally lures the non-western audience with the intimate mark-making and thus it is as exotic in Pakistan as it is in the West. People engage with the visual work according to their own history of looking and seeing, not having an access to the content does not necessarily mean a lack of intellect, it could simply be the lack of information about the subject.
When I moved to the United States back in 1993, the Miniature practice was in the process of reviving itself from being a dead art form for a while. At the time Western Art world in general had a limited knowledge about this genre and it was often inconvenient for them to fit it in the mainstream Art practice. So yes, it was an allure of the inaccessible. But Miniature painting has come a long way in a short period of time, in today’s global era it has its own place like any other genre. But the beauty of this form is that it can be enjoyed at both formal as well as conceptual levels.
AN: Would you consider yourself a feminist painter?
AB: I do consider myself a feminist but my feminist views do not fall in the broader sense of feminism since the definition and understanding of this term varies from culture to culture which is also contributed by the social and political milieu of the country. My work however does not arise from the same point of view all the time so no, I don’t consider myself just a feminist painter.
AN: You have used the fish metaphor in many of your works. Several artists in Pakistan have used the same symbol but they all quote different sources and thus apply varying connotations. What’s yours? Also tell us about your fascination with the animal kingdom, real and mythological.
AB: I think the above mentioned piece is from the series ‘Bed of my own making’ circa 1999 in which the female heroine is caught in meta-loops of pending disaster. She stands on the back of a large fish, using her long braid as line to hook and upend the creature that supports her. There is a sense of ambivalence and yet determination in the image. She is about to make a choice, if she pulls the hook she will get the fish but she will also lose her ground.
Like this piece I have used different animals as metaphors for different things. I developed a love of painting animals by looking at old masters, especially the very seductive paintings of Sultan Muhammed from 16th Century Persia.
AN: How much of your narrative stems from literary sources?
AB: My literary interests are rather non-art related. I am interested in Spirituality, Sufism, ideas of ‘Tasawwaf’. I read the related poetry to gain broader and spiritual perspective of the things happening around us. But the narratives in my work are informed by the visual stories and rhetoric used in the Mass Media. There is an interesting juxtaposition of the iconography which is often appropriated and approximated, it results in a visual narrative which looks familiar and yet it is untranslatable.
AN: Many of the issues you address are associated with events happening in Pakistan. But there are many images that you may not have made were you living in Pakistan. Is this the convenient fusion of a diasporic existence?
AB: I would respectfully say that this is a matter of perception. In my understanding, being an artist is a privilege, it gives me a command in using a visual language to express my point of view even in the times when freedom of expression is a luxury which cannot be afforded. As much as I believe and practice my freedom of expression, I also believe in being sensitive to my environment and being aware of the consequences my expression would bring. So I would still make what I have to make but I would alter my vocabulary for it to be understood by the viewers of that specific time and space. I have worked hard to develop a personal aesthetic that can accommodate the complexities of my experiences of living and dealing with two opposite cultures, it is not a convenient fusion.
AN: You have added installation to your oeuvre. Do you believe this is a natural transition for a miniature artist or is it a compulsion to join the postmodern scenario?
AB: I studied installation as well as painting during my graduate studies at Mass Art in the 90’s. Since then installation has been part of my work. I am very interested in the space in which my art is created and then seen. I have redefined the way manuscripts are viewed. When I studied miniature painting in Pakistan i learned that they were made to be part of books, to be held in hands, to be viewed by selective people and even when they were made they were held closely on the lap. To recreate that level of intimacy when the manuscript is out of its context was an interesting challenge for me. I brought ‘hashia’ lines out of the painting and brought them on the walls. the lines thus created borders and turned the wall into an open page of a book. This is one of the ways I have justified the miniature being on the wall, from flipping thorough the page to walking though the page. Lately I have been doing some sculptural installation which may look very different from miniature painting but keep the same sensibilities of a miniature with its incremental practice.
Ambreen Butt photo credit Tony Luong.