It has taken far too much time for the art world to wake up to the immensity of Faiza Butt’s contemplative production in the context of social and feminist discourse. But now audiences are wide awake and agape at the prolific works of this vivacious artist. Faiza Butt received her BA from the National College of Arts in 1993 and then went on to gain a master’s degree in painting with a distinction from the Slade School of Fine Art. In 1995, Butt was awarded a UNESCO-Aschberg Bursary, and was artist in residence for three months at the Bartle Arts Trust (BAT) in Durban, South Africa. There, she held workshops for women from neighboring shantytowns, presented talks at museums and galleries and produced a solo show at the BAT Centre. Her work has been exhibited at various art fairs, such as Art Dubai and the Hong Kong Art Fair, and extensively in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia and the United States.
ArtNow: What are the dominant narratives in your work? Have they changed with time over the last decade or are you following the same trajectory of thought?
Faiza Butt: There have been numerous parallel-narratives in my work over the years, frequently connecting directly, but at times, co-existing as part of the aesthetic nucleus of the work.
The most prominent strand is the gender issue, addressed through the lens of cross-cultural multitudes. In my earlier years as an artist, while I was still in Pakistan, I focused on my role as a woman and as an artist in that society.
My earlier works were directly inspired by the urban or folk repertoire of popular imagery. That included advertising, cinema promotion and truck art. I imbedded the geometry, humour and visual diction of their methods into my own. I felt that the decorative motifs of truck art hold in themselves, complex meanings and are candid statements about my role in society. Hence the ‘Buraq’( the winged flying horse) features frequently in earlier works, directly borrowed from truck art.
At NCA, (Lahore) under the mentoring of Prof. Salima Hashmi, we were encouraged to dwell deeper into the influences surround us, rather than make work derivative of western history.
Get out of my dreams 2, 2008, Ink on polyester film, H. 24 x W. 19 in. (61 x 48.3 cm)
Living in the west, the same references still inspire me where I continue to borrow from advertising and other tools of mass marketing, while I make works discussing gender issues.
AN: Why does the socio-political scenario of Pakistan still engage you so deeply? You’ve been living away for more than a decade (is that right?)
FB: My work uses methods and codes that hold meaning and appeal for a wide range of audiences. I tackle these issues through my identity as a Pakistani.
Being a Pakistani is not an issue if you are in Pakistan, but it turns into an entirely different territory once you are based abroad. On top of it all, the British system does not ‘absorb’ the outer influences but places them at the bottom of the main stream culture. Hence the comparison( if you live in NY for a one month you are a New Yorker, but you can spend a lifetime in London and you’ll never be British). I think a fine example is the Frieze Art Fair, in London which is one of the most important art events in Europe, where there is almost no representation of non European artists. Out of the nearly 200 galleries, there was only one that ‘qualified’ as being Indian! Other than feeling marginalized by the mainstream culture, I continued to witness Pakistan’s reputation slide.
Those circumstances heightened a deeper sense of affiliation with my roots. As the public face of Pakistan in the west started to come in my way as an individual, I began to use journalistic images to create works pointing to the insidious manipulation and design of propaganda. The series of my work that uses mug shots of ‘Asian-looking’ criminals recalls an incident wherein an innocent man was shot by police in broad day light because he looked like an Asian bomber! I challenge the imprint of western public assumptions, instituted by the media. My work does not advocate the rights of certain cultures against others but I feel the artist needs to look between the layers of our collective conscience.
AN: What has been your most important exhibition so far — the one show that was seminal to your practice. Why?
FB: I think the ‘Hanging Fire’ show played a vital role in putting Pakistani art on the world Map. It featured some of my seminal pieces, especially the ‘Get out of my Dreams’ series that was also featured on the catalogue accompanying the show. I use homo-erotic imagery to create wider meanings, and those works use images of Taliban-affiliated men, grouped together in affectionate positions.
AN: Your work involves painstaking stippling. Where does that come from? Sometimes you add washes of colour almost as if to veil the image after you have worked on it intensively. What does it signify?
FB: My method of developing work is a reactionary response to the history of western painting. This way of working started when I was studying at Slade for my M.F.A. I sensed that echoes of the New York School of painting (abstract expressionism) still rang strong in the art schools. I also happened to notice the gender and cultural implications of this tradition. The male students were physically able to throw together large canvases and cover them with immense volumes of paint hence creating an art piece ‘grounded in history’ and with the merit of ‘physicality’. The Macho baggage of abstract expressionism with artists like Jackson Pollock living wildly, painting vigorously and animatedly and then dying young challenged me beyond belief. I pondered over the traditions of eastern art where works were created on paper with water based colours. I set the paradigms for myself that I would create something ‘feminine’ with elements like embroidery, but would be also address rival, large, muscular, glossy paintings.
I also studied the technique of ‘purdakht’ in Miniature painting and tried to find a drawing method that is half way between purdakht and pixels.
My works are technically drawings not painting! If the elements of line distinguish a drawing from a painting, then my works are created with tiny dots (the dot being a starting point of a line). I take pride in creating and working with a method that disregards the hierarchy of western art history, draws from eastern traditions and implies the advancements in photography.
I mar the surface of the obsessively drawn image as a mockery of the tradition of abstract expressionism. The paint sits on surface as a scare.
AN: Your work about the two bearded men kissing created a substantial stir. Were you addressing homosexuality in your work?
FB: The case of the bearded men kissing is the most notable one so far! I do believe there is no representation of sexuality in Pakistani art. It’s either ‘read-into’ by critics or references are discreet and apologetic. Where I understand the cultural fabric of our society, I find it baffling that from places like Iran and Bangladesh, women have addressed the issue of the human condition in reference to sexuality, but not in Pakistan ( please note sexuality is not just about the act of sex!).
I suppose I have entered that little-addressed territory through its Achilles heel, homosexuality. I faced a lot of criticism when I used these images but I must emphasize, as I have done repeatedly over the past few years that though my work uses homoerotic references it’s not just about homosexuality! There is a difference. The series ‘I‘ll be safe in my own mind’, was created in direct response to the news of the Taliban targeting barber shops in the tribal areas of Khyber, not allowing men to shave, hence promoting the clone imaging of self! In that piece a man appears to be locked in a kiss with what seems to be his own shadow. The psychologist Freud associated homosexuality with narcissism (which is questionable), but it’s a common phenomenon that we choose a partner in reflection of ourselves. Anthropologists also note resemblances between dogs and their owners.
AN: You have depicted popular singers like Elton John and Eminem. How do they feature in your conceptual framework?
FB: The use of pop stars in my works comes from an era when I was working as a lecturer in the inner city art colleges in east London. The colleges were predominantly full of pupils from Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Indian backgrounds. What I observed was the segregation of society and the sub cultural units within these young people. They observed the dress code of their elders but their values were white British. Yet, the divisions were clear between the White group, the Asian group and the Black group. Within visual and cultural assumptions, these groups stayed aloof of each other. Therefore I was surprised to discover Eminem on the Ipod of an apparently conservative Asian girl and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on the Ipod of a White British girl, though there was no desire to connect. We can choose to postpone the debate over the impact and importance of music in the teen age generation as a reference for identity, but the fact was that the choice of music was relevant to my investigations. I came up with creating these Utopian scenarios where mainstream pop stars as the face of western hedonism are hanging out with their most unlikely audience. This way, I delineate the paradoxical boundaries around the divided state of British culture. These works are created by scavenging journalistic imagery and fusing them with photos I took of ‘common’, ‘invisible’ people who exist outside the parameters of the mainstream popular culture.
AN: Do you feel you are looked upon as the “Exotic artist” in the UK? Are you still the ‘other’ or do you feel that the British accept you as one of their own?
FB: I very much sit in the box of the ‘Pakistani artist’ and I have very little hope of it changing. It is placed like a millstone around your neck right from art school days here in Britain. I think this conservative approach has cost them heavily and is visible in the fact that since World War 2, no relevant art movement has emerged from Britain. In the 90s a spark of hope was ignited with the emergence of YBAs (Young British Artists) spearheaded by Saatchi, when artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin grabbed the spotlight. But it deflated quickly as there was no common vision to unite the group!
Recently, there is a little movement amidst this set structure and the history of eastern art is being reassessed by the academics.
AN: Do you consider yourself a feminist artist? You use jewellery in your work…Is that significant to feminism?
FB: The feminist word has turned into the ‘f’ words somehow and one gets misunderstood if artists agree to lean towards it. But gender issues have remained at the core of my scholarship. My new works use images of ‘treasure’ or jewels, but rather than connecting this with feminism, I use them a reference towards materialism and ostentation. I have a strange relationship with jewellery. My mother always advocated investing in jewellery as a woman’s hedge for hard times so that was a positive resonance. I used Nizam’s historic jewellery in illustrating Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem’ Aaj Bazaar Mein’ for an installation project for the contemporary art centre in Ohio. But the reference there was not feminism.
Poem by Faiz illustrated
It was a celebration of the tradition of craft. I have great empathy for the crafts of our region and tend to challenge the divide between craft and art created by the rigid conventions of western academic systems. These elaborately crafted ornaments are invested with metaphoric clues to the changing times of the subcontinent, yet also serve as a symbol for treasure, which also has many allusions like “the treasured words of the poet…” In my work, these jewels are juxtaposed with urban detritus create the connection with Faiz’s poem in which the city plays an essential part.
AN: What does your studio look like?
FB: My studio looks like a bomb has gone off! It is situated in Hackney, East London, in which reside more artists than the whole of Paris. I share it with some other friends from Slade.