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Can Art Change the World?

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Ambreen Butt, a Pakistani-American painter and miniaturist.
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© Ambreen Butt

September 17, 2019 20:20 EDT

Miniature painting is a genre in Persian and Indian art that has survived the passage of time. Indo-Persian miniature painting, a common heritage of the two nations, was originally an artwork adorning text that reached its climax of glory during the 15th and 16th centuries. Miniature paintings illustrate religious, mythological or literary themes and plots. In the 17th century, miniatures mostly depicted love scenes and, in the 18th century, shifted to portray flowers and birds.

Ambreen Butt is a Pakistani-American miniaturist and painter born in 1969 in the historic city of Lahore. She has been called a “leader in revitalizing the centuries-old form of” miniature. Butt received her bachelor’s in traditional Indian and Persian miniature painting from the National College of Arts in Lahore before moving to the United States in 1993 to attend the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Click here to view the photo essay.

Butt is the recipient of several national awards, including the Brother Thomas Fellowship from the Boston Foundation, the Maud Morgan Prize from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and a James and Audrey Foster Prize by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

Much of her labor-intensive work contains autobiographical elements that represent her childhood in Pakistan and her attachment to the US as an American citizen. She also touches upon social and political issues in her paintings.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Ambreen Butt about her artistic journey, her reflections on Indian and Persian miniature painting, and the national and international reception to her work.

The transcript has been edited for clarity and the interview took place earlier this year.

Kourosh Ziabari: You were born in Pakistan and studied Indian and Persian miniature painting. India, Iran and Pakistan have historically had close cultural ties and share many roots. What have you observed while practicing Indian and Persian miniature painting about the anthropological and cultural similarities of these countries?

Ambreen Butt: My earlier work during my National College of Arts years was greatly influenced by both the Mughal and Safavid style paintings. The color palette I use now has been evolved by looking at these two different styles.

As much as there is a presence of both Indian and Persian influence in my work, I don’t see much similarities among the two cultures in present-day life. Although I have never had a chance to visit either India or Iran, my understanding of both cultures is purely based on my observation and interaction with the art and the artists, some of whom I have been friends with for a long time.

India and Pakistan share pretty much the same cultural roots, despite the religious difference; many rituals are shared because of their long history of togetherness. But Iran is different. I don’t think there are that many similarities between Iranian and Pakistani culture. From food to clothing to art and architecture, there is a distinct difference. Although the two countries have similar religious roots, the manifestation of religious culture is quite different.

The only thing I would like to point out which I see as a common binding is its women: they are resilient. From Shirin Ebadi to Asma Jahangir to Malala Yousafzai, women in these countries have come out as a force of strength and change even in the most oppressive times. And it is very inspiring for me.

Ziabari: I’ve seen many of your works, and my understanding is that you combine traditional and modern sketches and that your paintings cross the boundaries of time and location so that audiences can relate to them regardless of their backgrounds. What would you tell us about this aspect of your work? 

Butt: The existence of my work is often a result of strong emotions triggered by the social and political milieu around me. I try to find multiple ways to decode or unravel that personal language. In order to fulfill that ultimate need, I use both figuration and abstraction in a platform that is purely my own.

© Ambreen Butt

So, as you said, it is true that I have used icons or scenes from the traditional Indo-Persian miniature paintings, along with the images from the mass media and/or my own stylized drawings to create new imagery — imagery that is complex and can be reinterpreted or seen in multiple ways after it has departed from my personal space.

Regardless of how I relate with my work in its entirety, I cannot control how others relate with it. I can only give a certain direction to my viewers with my symbolic imagery or mark-making, and then I leave it up to them as to how much they want to take from it. Some viewers connect with my work purely at an aesthetic level, some try to place it in an art historical context, and some relate it with their own personal or political situations. I am fine with all of that as long as there is some connection. My intention is to let the work build its own connection.

Ziabari: I read that in your undergraduate years, you blended your passion for social issues with stories from Khawateen magazines in your works of art. How was this mixture reflected in your paintings? How is it possible for miniature paintings to carry social messages?

Butt: After having gone through an intense training of learning the techniques of old masters of miniature painting in my undergrad, I had the freedom to choose a topic to create my own project as part of my thesis show. I had developed an interest in internalizing cultural norms of everyday life and thought it would be interesting to bring them into my work. It was challenging as there had not been any examples of issue-based works produced in miniature painting before that.

I chose to highlight a story from one of the popular weekly or bi-weekly Khawateen magazines that were widely read by the middle-class Pakistani ladies. I noticed a pattern in these stories: They were said to have been true stories written by different women, but original names and places were changed with false names; the stories always revolved around women, their tabooed romance and heartbreaks, their dilemmas, rebellion and misfortunes; and the stories also moved between the fine lines of reality and fiction, almost like a sensational news item but catered only to women.

I was at a stage in my artistic life where I had started to question my role in society as an artist. Although I had not picked any banner to protest the ills of the society through my art, I had begun to realize that there was a tool in my hand that could be useful in bringing attention to something that existed in our surroundings to a different kind of audience. That realization was very empowering.

I created a series of paintings called “Cognition,” inspired by a story of a female house-maid who was sexually exploited by a male member of an elite family. Unlike the Persian or Indian miniature paintings, my “Cognition” paintings had a very peculiar pictorial space and even strange stylization of the female figures. A rendered blue background was divided horizontally into three sections where a large male figure with his crown and an orange garb is seen surrounded by a sea of small sperm-like female figures, almost a reminiscent of “Krishna and his disciple gopis.” The imagery comprising one dominant male figure and small sperm-like female figures change scenes in each painting, almost like the characters from a written story. I also reinvented the traditional mark making called “pardakhat” in these paintings by using the handmade brush from its tip to make small dot-like marks. Overall, the work has a very different look from that of a traditional miniature painting, and yet everything about it came from my knowledge of all the techniques I had learned during my four-year degree program.

As for the last part of your question: How is it possible for a miniature painting to carry a social message? I don’t know, but I have done it using plenty of symbolism, wrapping the broken pieces of society in a foil of beauty and aesthetics.

Ziabari: How much time do you usually dedicate to finishing each piece of artwork? I imagine the miniature paintings are very time and energy-consuming.

Butt: My work is meticulous and time-consuming just like the traditional miniature painting. It goes through several layers of making, one mark at a time strategy. I call it a labor of love, the bearer of the clarity of my mind.

I work in a series, multiple pieces at a time. I don’t generally know at what point my work begins, as the process starts with research, making notes and sketches. Sometimes it doesn’t even go past that stage for a year or two. Then, all of a sudden, I find myself planning what materials to use for a certain series. Sometimes the work is site-specific, and for that, I go and visit the site, take pictures and lay out a plan. And sometimes it’s just an everyday ritual to go to the studio and start making something really small.

There is both conceptual and aesthetic underpinning in my work so, yes, it takes a while for the first piece of one particular series to be finished, but the rest doesn’t take as long. Generally, I finish one to two small drawings a month or if it’s a big drawing, as long as six to seven feet, it takes several months to finish. My emphasis has always been on quality rather than quantity.

Ziabari: What are some of the most notable innovations you’ve introduced in your works when it comes to content, the use of materials and style?

Butt: I have always been, and still am, very interested in exploring different materials through my work. This is one of the reasons I deviated from making traditional miniature paintings. Although sometimes I visit back and work in a traditional mode if my subject matter requires, my art practice generally varies from miniature pencil drawings to large-scale works on paper with mylar, text and collage to gigantic sculptures and installations.

One of my biggest contributions in the tradition of miniature painting was redefining a female figure through the gaze of a female artist. My female protagonist is beautiful and seductive like the old “Nayika” from Kangra-style miniature paintings, but she is also a warrior who is often seen engaged in fighting the demons with a sword in her hands, like a “bride” from “Kill Bill,” reminiscing about the old heroes from the Persian manuscripts and yet asserting her role as a woman of contemporary times.

Looking back at my own practice, I would say one of my other innovations is redefining the mark-making. Starting from “pardakht,” the traditional mark making for miniature painting, my marks are also redundant and systematic. They have experienced several mediums and surfaces, from a small pencil or brush mark on paper to the mark of ripped pieces of writing or small resin casted digits on the wall.

I was also the first one to have started addressing social and political issues through the medium of traditional miniature painting by creating the series “Cognition” as part of my thesis project in my undergraduate years.

Ziabari: How much does the Western world know about the contemporary miniature from South Asia? Is it still an alien concept in the United States and Europe?

Butt: When I moved to the United States in the early 90s, there was a lack of knowledge about contemporary miniature painting practice among the general art practitioners. And since ours was the earlier batch to have graduated from National College of Arts with the degree in miniature painting, it was through us that miniature painting was reintroduced as a contemporary art practice in America.

I still remember that when I was interviewed for admission into a graduate program, I was asked about miniature painting. In my innocence, I told them that we used to copy the old masters paintings in order to learn the techniques in our first and second year of the degree program. They had a hard time figuring out how to fit me in the MFA program.

Also during graduate school when I worked on paper and made small paintings, I was often asked this question during my critiques: “Is this a traditional miniature painting or a contemporary painting?” I find it quite amusing now when I look back, but it was rather annoying at the time when it happened. I had to work twice as much to develop a vocabulary to break the barrier between my work and their understanding. But I must say, as much as it was hard, I also felt welcomed by the art world after I graduated from Massachusetts College of Arts. I have been continuously showing my work within the United States since then.

Ziabari: How is your relationship with the viewers and audience of your paintings and sculptures? What are the most inspiring things they’ve told you about your artistic creations?

Butt: Just two days after the US went to war in Iraq in 2003, my show, “I must utter what comes to my lips,” opened at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts. Most works in that show were created after the September 11, 2001, incident and it addressed the effects of the events that occurred as a result on individual lives.

While we were all watching parts of Iraq being bombed live on television, some people made an effort to turn off their TVs and radios and went to the museum to see my work. Many of them wrote back to me saying how they felt that a narrative of war was forced into their brain through the media, but going to the museum and seeing the artwork that was still related to what was happening around them gave them the space to make up their own mind about it altogether.

This is one of the examples of how people respond to my work. It is rewarding to hear your art can make the viewer think. I believe this is the purpose that my art has to serve if it is to survive in the world beyond my studio — to make the viewer think just a little differently than the rest of the world.

Ziabari: When you are commissioned projects by organizations such as embassies or government offices, what do you take into account to create the projects? Do you prioritize your artistic insight and intuition to draw a painting or create a sculpture, or do you put the emphasis on the commercial viability and reception of the work?

Butt: Commissioned projects are very different and challenging, especially when you are used to working in your own terms and without compromise. But I love challenges. It helps me in pushing the boundaries of my creativity.

The first thing I like to do with the commissioned projects is to see the site in person and observe the cultural environment around that space. Then I get a list of things from the organization that cannot be done and use it as a guideline to build my project around it. For example, in my commission for the US Embassy in Islamabad, I was told that the work couldn’t be done directly on the walls. It was a bit disappointing in the beginning, but later it pushed me to come up with a plan that coordinated well with the conceptual aspect of the work, so I created the work first in my studio and then we installed it in the space. It is important that the people who are locally engaged with the work on a regular basis get to relate with it in different ways. I have not done anything purely for commercial reasons. That idea has never attracted me.

Ziabari: Do you think your artistic creations, especially those that carry feminist ideas, are easy to understand for an ordinary audience, or does it take sophisticated knowledge of academic concepts to be able to relate to your work? 

Butt: My art is not exclusive to the art world. I have worked hard to develop an aesthetic that can accommodate the complexities of my personal identity, my social-political ideas and history of my own art-making. I use figurative and abstract symbolism, visual reference from the art history as well as contemporary images from the mass media for my viewer to connect with my work at multiple levels. I am not sure if my work is easy or difficult to understand for an ordinary viewer as I do not demand from my viewer the same understanding and intensity as I have for my own work. I give them the freedom to connect with it based on their own history of seeing.

Ziabari: We are living in a world marred by conflict, war and hostility. How can art, especially painting, contribute to alleviating animosity and making the world a better and more peaceful place?

Butt: Art can make people see things differently than, let’s say, science or politics. In my opinion, it cannot change the world we live in, but it can certainly contribute to changing the world by pointing out the right direction of the change.

*[Click here to view the photo essay.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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