“Hedonistic popstars and Muslim youth”: interview with Pakistani artist Faiza Butt

Faiza Butt investigates freedom and feminism through lively pointillist drawings. 

Born in Lahore and residing in London, Faiza Butt’s work marries iconic images and stereotypical representations with splashes of colour. Art Radar spoke with the artist about her first retrospective in the United Kingdom, opening on 23 April 2015 at the New Art Exchange, and what she’s learned about life from her children.

Faiza Butt, 'The Joker', 2013, ink on polyester film, 33 x 45 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Faiza Butt, ‘The Joker’, 2013, ink on polyester film, 33 x 45 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Faiza Butt (b. 1973, Lahore, Pakistan) earned her BFA from the National College of Arts Lahore with an honours in painting in 1993, and an MA with distinction from the Slade School of Fine Art, London in 1999.

According to Melanie Kidd, Director of Programmes at the New Art Exchange, Butt’s work is a “refreshing” blend of styles. Kidd told Art Radar that:

Faiza’s practice occupies a fascinating space that combines both eastern and western artistic influences creating a visual language which is both refreshing and unique. Given NAE’s interest in art and artists from around the world, particularly South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the West Indies, we were very interested in Faiza’s fusion of styles.

Butt’s work has been exhibited widely internationally and has been included in notable events, such as Art Dubai, Hong Kong Art Fair and the Venice Biennale. The artist was awarded the Berger Gold Metal for Outstanding Student of the Year at the National College of Arts Lahore and the UNESCO-Ashberg Bursary Award. In addition, Butt was nominated for the Jameel Prize (2013) and was a finalist for the Sovereign Art Prize (2009). Her work is held in public and private collections worldwide. She is represented by Rossi & Rossi, London.

Art Radar caught up with the artist to learn more about the images and topics that drive her work and how growing up under General Zia’s regime and living in London post-9/11 has shaped the themes and techniques that she employs.

You spent your formative years in Lahore. How did that experience shape your sense of identity and the choices of topics and images that you choose to use in your artwork?

I was born and raised in Lahore. The Pakistan I gained consciousness in was under the dictatorial regime of General Zia, and the eighties were a very turbulent time. I was raised against a backdrop of the calculated propagation of Islamic extremism in a previously moderate society, with Pakistan supporting the Mujahideen (later known as the Taliban) as the United States waged a war against the advancing Russians.

From a grassroots movement – my catholic school uniform had a hijab – all the way to mainstream media, everything eventually came under strict rules of censorship. The country became the “Islamic” Republic of Pakistan and Sharia law was passed. Sharia law is unsympathetic to the most vulnerable and endorses primitive methods of civil discipline. The segregation of men from women, an absence of debates around sexuality and the human condition, as well as my own placement in a matriarchal household remain concepts that underpin my practice to this day. I took in everything that was changing and mutating around me. Ever since, the need to question power and authority is part of my grain.

I clearly recall that media and popular cinema became useful tools of propaganda, and their projection and display were absorbed by my observant eyes. Lahore had no galleries or public art spaces during that time. There was no source to consult for art debates or about regional art history. There was, however, enough inspiring material such as hand-painted cinema bill boards, advertising, illustrations in newspapers and children’s comics, political propaganda material and truck art around me to satiate my quest for visual and optical information. In a way, this climate of suppression and denial heightened and sharpened my senses.

Faiza Butt, 'Get out of my dreams', 2012, ink on polyester film, 29.7 x 42.0cm.  Image courtesy the artist.

Faiza Butt, ‘Get out of my dreams’, 2012, ink on polyester film, 29.7 x 42.0 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

How has that experience changed as an artist living outside Pakistan since the 9/11 attacks?

I came to Britain before the World Trade Center attacks in New York, and observed the post [9/11] effects on our collective public consciousness. I believe that the association of extremism with Islam has had the most damaging and dividing effects upon people. We stand very divided in these savage times.

I was teaching in a primarily migrant (Pakistani/Bangladeshi) college in London shortly after the attacks. It was fascinating to see students adopting an identity as Muslims, a reactionary result of what they regarded as an Islamic witch hunt. It was worrying, as that reactionary affiliation – along with faith – nurtures the rise of the right on the other side. The work from my “Stars and Idols” series is from that period in my life, where I juxtaposed Muslim youth with unlikely people, such as Western hedonistic pop stars! I was trying to make the point that in this divided climate we associate and project frames in which we believe certain units of cultures and sub-cultures exist.

Britain has a very proud and clear sense of cultural and historic identity, and it remained difficult for me to “assimilate” entirely. I remained a Pakistani based abroad. It may be in a diasporic capacity, but I kept in touch with my academic allies and audience in Pakistan. I exhibited there regularly, and participated in educational and cultural events.

You consider Salima Hashmi your mentor. What techniques or subjects did you learn from her that you still include today in your work?

Amidst this grinding political social situation, the National College of the Arts served as a haven in the city of Lahore. The school cultivates deeper ways of thinking and prides itself as one of the best art schools in South Asia.

In the early nineties, I was very fortunate to be mentored by Professor Salima Hashmi. She had just successfully earned her degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in the United States and was full of enthusiasm and energy. She was an extraordinary tutor who took great troubles to create opportunities and exposure for her students. She invited academics from international art institutions to deliver talks and workshops for us.

One of the most memorable occasions was when we were taught the ancient Renaissance technique of egg tempera. My earliest body of work was created using that method. As a woman, [Salima] was very inspiring. She represented feminism in the flesh, as she was a parent and at the same time an intelligent, professional woman. Her work spans creative disciplines, including acting, puppetry, photography, painting, curating and education. She has remained a role model, a mentor and a guide for me ever since.

Faiza Butt, 'Is this the Man 4', 2013, ink on polyester film, 59.4 x 84.1cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Faiza Butt, ‘Is this the Man 4’, 2013, ink on polyester film, 59.4 x 84.1 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

You use a pointillist technique in your work. Are there similarities to the traditional Mughal miniature technique of purdakht?  

My use of pointillism was developed during my years as a graduate student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. In the mid-nineties, the echoes from the New York art scene were still ringing strong at the art school, with its leaders like Jackson Pollock projected like rock stars who lived fast and died young! I observed that students were still very engaged in the discussion around the physicality of oil painting as a medium. I have always questioned the hierarchy of Western art history projected as the [only] art history of the world and the need to reinterpret the arts of the East.

I may be generalising paradigms here, but I was always framed as an outsider at Slade. I rejected oil painting on canvas as a method that evolved in the West and endorsed colour on paper, which is found in more of the Eastern traditions, such as Indo-Persian miniatures and Chinese watercolours.

I chose to work on paper as a reaction to the physicality of canvas and oil paint. I consider my works elaborate drawings. I observed that drawing had a place in the hierarchical order of the painting tradition, but was considered “preparatory” and not complete. I decided to create obsessive, embellished drawings that rival paintings in their ambition. The big question remained… what is drawing?

Drawing has the element of lines and painting is named after that medium! The starting point to a line is a dot. I took dots and layered them together like pixels to create saturated hues of colour. I wanted to get inspiration from painting traditions rooted in the sub-continental region. The way a miniature painting is rendered is of great interest to me, where tiny dot-like strokes are layered to get the saturation of hues. I developed a technique that was the marriage of “Purdakht” and pixels, resulting in the pointillistic method.

Faiza Butt, 'Placebo for my warrior', 2012, ink on polyester film, 59.4 x 84.1cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Faiza Butt, ‘Placebo for my warrior’, 2012, ink on polyester film, 59.4 x 84.1 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Please tell us how feminism is examined in contemporary art found in South Asia. Does it differ from the feminist themes/issues depicted outside of the region? How?  

Feminism remains an under-discussed topic in the art from that region. Whether women take the roles of goddesses in Chitra Ganesh’s work, or female torsos moulded into armour, women and their placement in history and society are not often a topic of discussion. I have addressed feminism through the shape of fetishisation of edible beauty and domesticism, where elaborate cakes and dripping wet chunks of roasted meat nestle paradoxically against hypermasculine images of men.

I must add that although my own decision to represent men in my drawings is rooted in a reaction towards the western history of the female nude, the issues surrounding feminism are different in South Asia. Where women took to burning their bras in the West, we are still struggling against Sharia law in Pakistan, which demands that a woman produce “x” number of witnesses to validate rape, or be charged with adultery herself! The need to visually examine women’s rights is vital to the artistic community in India and Pakistan. In the wake of the recent brutal rape cases in India, many platforms have been established that discuss misogyny and popular media/cinema.

I seek to demonstrate feminism through living by example. As a woman from South Asia, I am opinionated, vocal, practical, and support fairness and equality. I think one can support the movement best by being one and raising one’s daughter as one.

Faiza Butt, 'My love plays in heavenly ways', 2013,  ink on polyester film, 59.4 x 84.1cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Faiza Butt, ‘My love plays in heavenly ways’, 2013, ink on polyester film, 59.4 x 84.1 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Please tell us more about how you choose the subject matter and imagery found in your artwork. 

There are a few running themes in my work. I discuss gender polemics, cross cultural identity and the human condition. These issues are narrated through images of children role playing war, portraits of men from diverse cultural backgrounds, homoerotic imagery and text-as-image. I use the human face as a political landscape. The drawings are rich in a kind of “human-fauna” that nestles against everyday objects, food and weaponry.

My earliest body of work, while I was in Pakistan, supported the feminist movement. I had a dominant matriarchal upbringing and it was only natural for me to be inclined that way. The earlier work shows women grouping together in domestic settings, engaged in group activities like embroidery, indoor games and prayers. Those images were directly influenced by vernacular truck art and what one could classify as urban folk art.

After my studies at Slade, discussing gender remained close to my heart, but instead of women, I used highly eroticised images of stereotypical “orientalist” Muslim men from the Western press. I took to drawing these men in great detail and, at times, regressing their hypermasculinity. The “Get Out of My Dreams” series is a perfect example of that.

Children have regularly been featured in my drawings. Being a parent was such a turning point in my thought process. I observed that children are perfect blank canvases and it is the parents who colour that consciousness in various shades, whether it be by giving them a sense of self or isolating them from others. My children are a social experiment, devoid of any straitjacket of religious or nationalistic identity. They turned out to be perfect human beings. The image of children in my work, discusses issues of nature and nurture and our instinct for territory. This concept serves as metaphor for this divided world. In a recent piece, My love plays in heavenly ways, my children are shown role-playing war amidst a blue and white porcelain background, slaying a noble beast – in this case a Chinese dragon – having mistaken it for enemy.

Where the human condition is under discussion, I used homoerotic imagery, as homosexuality remains the Achilles’ heel of social acceptance and much more so from my cultural origin. I pitch various ideas using men engaged in romantic or erotic postures. For example, at first glance the piece I’ll be safe in my own mind is an image of two bearded men locked in a passionate kiss. It was meant to be an image of a man kissing his own reflection. The idea occurred to me when I heard that the Taliban were targeting barber shops in the North Western region of Pakistan, discouraging men to shave and narcissistically propagating the image of self.

Faiza Butt, 'Moderate Fantasy Violence', 2012, ink on polyester film, 59.4 x 84.1cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Faiza Butt, ‘Moderate Fantasy Violence’, 2012, ink on polyester film, 59.4 x 84.1 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

What images in particular do you find most illuminating? Why?

One has to understand the process behind my ideas. I scavenge images from journalistic photography. Photographs that are meant to influence the masses amaze me. I must add that the creative force that affects people instantly is not art but advertising. My initial ideas come from sources that exist outside the core of fine art. It connects with my early inspiration coming from the visual material that surrounded me in Lahore.

Once I find a photograph that I feel can be extended into a meaningful image, I start to spin the web of supporting images around it, digesting the original image along the way and giving birth to a new narrative. I believe my drawing Moderate fantasy violence is a good example of that. I took the image of Rudy Giuliani – the mayor of New York City during 9/11 – and added images of bomb explosions that replaced his eyes. He retains his artificial smile alongside these changes, creating a sinister yet comical image.

Any particular female visual artists that inspire you today? What is it about them or their work that inspires you?

I admire many artists, including Gerhard Richter’s debate around photography and painting, but among my favourite female artists is Barbara Kruger. Her role as a feminist artist, the punch in her ideas, her roots in advertising and the sincerity of her messages talk loud and clear to me.

Faiza Butt, 'God's best' installation shot "Personal Structures" exhibition, Palazzo Bembo Venice Biennale, 2013, digital print and ink on polyester film mounted on film box. Image courtesy the artist.

Faiza Butt, ‘God’s best’ installation view at “Personal Structures” exhibition, Palazzo Bembo, Venice Biennale, 2013, digital print and ink on polyester film mounted on film box. Image courtesy the artist.

I have read that you feel that “artists have a purpose in society”. What is that purpose and how is it fulfilled?

I do believe artists are social commentators. Hardship tends to sharpen their senses. They log and document truth and side towards fairness. They are trained to look in-between the hard projections of right and wrong. I do have that sense of responsibility! My work must provoke the unsaid, the truth, and make my audience think and question. Coming from a turbulent country such as Pakistan, it is only natural for me to be politically opinionated in my work. The more hardship that the society has endured, the better the artists’ expressions. This is very evident in the amazing work coming out of Pakistan right now.

In 1995, you spent time in Durban, South Africa, as an artist in residence for the Bartel Arts Trust. What did you do during your residency and what did you learn about contemporary African art during your stay?

My residency was a wonderful opportunity to discover a country and culture that the world has heard very little about. I made the most of the studio space available. I conducted workshops with homeless people, held talks about Pakistani art at various venues and produced a show at the end of my residency. It wasn’t long after the affirmative action and the evidence of Apartheid was still very clear. It was shocking to see the immense divide between the rich and the poor, and the artistic activity concentrated with the white middle class.

Although Marlene Dumas remains one of my favourite artists, South African contemporary art appeared locked in a fossilised sense of identity. On the other hand, I researched deep into the lives and values of the Zulu culture, and learned a lot about their traditional music and dance. That knowledge was an invaluable opportunity.

Faiza Butt, "A heroes work is never done', 2012, ink and acrylics on rag paper, 2 ft x 4 ft . Image courtesy the artist.

Faiza Butt, ‘A heroes work is never done’, 2012, ink and acrylics on rag paper, 2 x 4 ft . Image courtesy the artist.

The first major survey of your work in the United Kingdom will be on display at the New Art Exchange from 23 April to 28 June 2015. Please tell us more about what will be included in the solo show and about the installation commissioned for the exhibition.  

I have been practising as an artist in the UK for the last sixteen years and my mid-career retrospective at the New Art Exchange is the biggest milestone to date. The show will travel to various public venues in the UK, and workshops and activities will be based around each venue. A number of seminal pieces were borrowed from private collections to group together my concepts.

The central piece connects with my recent work, where I use the power of text and writing as an art form. This piece will be an installation of four lighted wall panels at the scale of 2.5 by 3 metres, forming a split cube. On either side of the cube will be poetry written in English, from letters crafted out of various natural and man-made objects. The words will be readable, but they can also be appreciated as images.

The light wall panels will resemble the walls and ornamentation of the Holy Kaba, but the text illustrated will be secular poetry from my favourite poets of that region, Agha Shahid Ali and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Using the iconic power and structure of God’s house, I transform it into an advertising billboard, replacing Quranic verses with secular poetry of the leftist poets, creating an interface between sacred and secular.

 Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics: Pakistani artists, art and activism, feminist art, art about globalisation, art and mass media, political art, women power, interviews, events in the UK

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