Bold, vibrant, dynamic, intelligent, beautiful, eloquent are some of the words that can be conjured up to describe Faiza Butt. She graduated with honours at the prestigious National College of Arts and then went on to read her masters in painting at Slade Institute of Art where she received an Outstanding Students Award.
Butt is known for her beautifully illustrated dream-like works which have been obsessively rendered using minute dots. Once she commands her viewers complete attention she then confronts them with bigger issues such as politics, sexuality or religion. One example of her fantastical narratives is the work titled “Epoch”, a painting of two suited men, kissing while surrounded by pastel coloured cakes, flowers and fruit; the work is at once sensual and delicate but confrontational in its sexual iconography.
Beginnings at Lahore: Early Influences and Inspirations
“The foetal years are important” Butt says referring to her youth. It was at this point in her life she realised that her world view was very different to that of her siblings. Her early inspiration was her own household and especially her parents. Both her parents were liberals. Education was a fetish in her household irrespective of sex. Her late father, a Professor of Literature had a modest library in the living area and out of boredom, Butt recalls reaching out to touch, feel and browse through the collection of old, lovingly used books. She recalls these books were mainly from the 1920”s and were hand drawn with the most “beautifully illustrated jacket covers” and remembers that “the covers of those books were extremely inspiring at that time”. She recalls how “powerful the images were as words did not hold much meaning back then”. Her father had piles and piles of magazines such as Urdu Digest or Bachon ka Bagh and the Pakistan Times scattered all over the house. Hours and hours, Butt nostalgically reminisces were spent “gazing, reading and absorbing this literary material”. As a result, “illustration and the appreciation of the graphic aspect of an image” was embedded at a very early age of her life.
Butt’s mother was also quite an influential figure during her early years. She was a well-respected and an educated woman of society and embraced the traditional role of being a house-wife, and providing a safe haven for her brood to develop their talents. Butt’s earliest memories are of her mother constantly using her hands to make things be it embroidery, crochet, sewing or preparing food. Upon reflection of Butt’s work “Impermanence” – one can trace back or draw parallels to her childhood. This work in ink on polyester film has an image of a mother protectively holding her child as if understanding the transitory nature of life. She is dominated by images of decadent pastries, recyclable water bottles, broken slippers. The use of the pointillist technique creates a sense of domesticity: the feminine in her work emulating the look of embroidery.
Butt is extremely passionate about her work and is conscious that people have a simplistic way of looking at her work as portraits. Butt is adamant that she is not a portrait painter. She feels her work is more akin to “illustrations that are derived by combining the traditional Purdkhat technique with the formation of pixels in a photograph”. The graphic aspect of an image holds an immense appeal for Butt as “an image always speaks”; to communicate to anyone – a child, an illiterate, or anyone from any culture.
National College of Arts (Lahore): Eyes wide opened
“National College of Arts was a complete game-changer”. Finally, here the “lost and wandering” young girl, as she describes herself at the time, found her tribe. “The college and its culture stands as an immense construct to the rest of the society. It is a little island, a little oasis in what generally surrounds it.”
As a child, Butt attended colonial, catholic schools with traditional ways of teaching where muscle memory was practiced and questioning was not really accepted. Going to an institution which allowed for mental and personal growth was a revelation. Butt had the privilege of being taught by Quddus Mirza, young, full of energy and enthusiasm and who had just returned back from studying at the Royal College of Art. Mrs. Saleema Hashmi, had just come back from the Royal Institute of Art and Design filled with new ideas and a fresh approach towards education. “Being taught by Mrs. Hashmi was a privilege and she was not only phenomenal in the class room but had the far-sightedness to invite lecturers from abroad to conduct workshops which were unheard of in the 80’s helping her students connect to the wider world”.
One such workshop had a huge impact on Butt’s life. The lecturer was speaking about ancient painting techniques. “This was an eye-opening experience for me because other than acrylics, oils, gouache and water-colour I was unaware that other methods of painting even existed.” The lecturer spoke about egg tempera and inspired Butt to actually work in egg tempera for her thesis and which continued till she came to the United Kingdom. After a short teaching stint at NCA, Butt was awarded a residency in Durban, South Africa and so began her next chapter.
A World Beyond
In 1995 Butt was awarded the UNESCO-Aschberg Bursary at the Bartle Arts Trust (BAT) where she was an artist in residence for three months. There she held workshops for women from neighbouring towns, presented talks at museums and galleries and produced a solo show at the BAT centre. This was the first time she had a really interesting encounter with history with untold stories of repression around her. After her residency, Butt came back with a real lust for the wider world. “Lahore felt like a small place, like a well” and she wanted to explore beyond Lahore so when the opportunity for Slade came up Butt jumped at the chance.
The two years at Slade were very intense and left an immense impression on Butt. “Slade was concepts heavy and whatever one does is acceptable as long as in a seminar one can justify it really well – the language of art was very important”. Her time at Slade was about “writing, reading and then to justify in equal measures, what I am doing. UCL is a powerhouse for intellectual enquiry. Lecturers from various disciplines including practicing artists, art historians, anthropologists and economists are invited to show students the bridges that connect the world.”
One such lecture by Sir Micheal Craig-Martin an icon of the 90’s (YBA movement), had an everlasting impact on Butt’s sensibility. Inspired by photography, Craig-Martin lectured about the power of the image and took the students on a historic journey of the image. This took Butt back to her childhood and the power of the image to make an impact. “The power of the image is very wide, immense and extremely manipulative. From that point I started resisting the western values of art.” Her classmates were inspired by the trend of abstract expressionism and were working with paint on large canvases. Butt, on the other hand, chose to focus on her heritage and used ink and paper in a figurative manner. “My works are derived from photographs. I use the human face a lot but I am not a portrait painter. I use the human face to play my politics through that face; the face has the ability to identify your gender, your age, your class. It’s a very interesting token that could be manipulated to say things through”. Many of her works were mug shots of Muslim men found in newspapers and magazines affirming the cliched notion of the Muslim man as terrorist. Yet, Butt’s instinct to beautify them, making them a source of gratification and enjoyment. In doing so Butt also seems to be reacting to the idea of the portrayal of women as objects of desire in art.
Butt’s works are laboriously crafted using the obsessive dot like technique reminiscent of Purdkhat style in miniature painting. “At the same time I was also looking at photographs and the pixels of photographs and how they are constructed with tiny dots. At the end of the day a photograph is almost like a drawing which is done with these colours so I started to copy those pixels – so then the method of working in that great detail developed”. Butt was becoming known for her work at Slade, graduated with a distinction and started her next phase of life living in London as a wife and a working mother.
Life in London
“The reality of life is that the mortgage has to be paid”. As a married woman and a young mother, Butt had the responsibility of looking after her children but also the pressure to bring in an income, which art did not do initially. Therefore, she obtained her teaching qualifications in the early 2000s and started teaching in East London. Butt feels this was an important chapter in her life. “I gained exposure to well-kept secrets of British society, the fact that London is a very poor place and that the pavements are not lined with gold.” She started teaching predominantly first or second generation impoverished British Asian children. With her cosy upbringing in Lahore this was quite a revelation. “It was an eye opening experience for me that London has these insular ghettos that don’t cross communicate.”
This experience resulted in a series of works called “Stars and Superstars” which mixed the Western icons of pop-culture exhibiting Western values while hanging out with the invisible immigrant Asians. Butt decided to go back to full-time studio practice with her own hours to manage the kids and the house-hold. “Compromises had to be made but I have managed to make a miracle work.”
Recent developments in Butt’s Art
Butt has now recently ventured into focusing on ceramics. “Living in a virtual world increasingly where one is always pressing buttons”, Butt once again wants to create art that involves the use of the senses and the hand. “The sign of the human hand as a signature holds a tremendous appeal to me”. She finds working with her bare fingers in clay a spiritual experience because of the warmth it exudes. It may also be comforting for her as she always recalls her mother working with her hands. Butt shyly admits that she is “nerdy” about physics and is intrigued by the science of ceramics as “it involves earth, water and fire. Even the paint I use is derived from natural materials and then the drawings that I paint on the ceramic pieces go in a kiln around 1200 degrees. It burns, it shrinks and comes out fossilised, stoneware that will last the test of time.”
The ceramic pieces are autobiographical with the theme of parenthood emerging. “Triumph” and the series from “the Dinner Dialogue” painted in underglazes is layered with imagery depicting the mundane, the everyday. Here one tends to find her children engaged in banal activities like eating spaghetti or just sleeping interspersed with images of toys, plastic bottles, food, a pair of trainers, cleaning products or logos – the domestic, the day to day. Butt feels that motherhood should be celebrated and that modern age makes one almost embarrassed about being a parent. Like the artist herself, the illustrations are vibrant and dynamic alluring the viewer with its map like imagery. The flatness, spatial arrangement and the layering of the glazes are typical elements of the miniature tradition. Some of her works were selected for the coveted Sovereign Asian Art Prize.
Butt’s work has been exhibited in various art fairs, such as Art Dubai and the Hong Kong Art Fair, and extensively in Europe, South Asia, the Middle East and the United States. Butt has also had several solo shows in London. Her work is displayed between two major galleries (Rossi & Rossi and Grosvenor Gallery). In 2015 she had a mid-career retrospect at the New Art Exchange in Nottingham, UK. The show “Paracosm” travelled to Edinburgh, Leicester and was also on display on the South Bank (a series of museums and theatres in London). The show discussed issues such as gender polemics, identity, politics and popular culture. On display were the huge light boxes for which Butt is also known. Inspired by Abu Nawaz’s classical poem she draws the viewer in with snowy mountains and flora, and confronts them with the Kufic script which is gilded with intricate gold imagery. Upon closer inspection the script has been constructed like an embroidery with gold, middle eastern jewellery.
Butt is an artist with a mission. She has managed to balance her work life with her family life. She is extremely hard-working and with a grit of iron and resolve is determined to continue to fight her cause. She challenges and asks questions of society about the human condition where most would shy away. She is making the art world notice her with her unusual choice of imagery and subject matter. She cannot be ignored. Asked about advice she would give to young artists, she says “Find your cause, fight for it and make it work”. There is no doubt that Butt has followed this very path herself successfully.