“Beyond the Ideas of Rightness or Wrongness”: Ambreen Butt
By Maha Kamal
A Pakistani artist with long, jet black hair works carefully in a suburban studio in Lexington, Massachusetts. Shades of ochre and maroon seem to come alive on one wall. On closer inspection, the colors are revealed to be a body of ants, representative of mankind.
On the floor below, there are little toes and fingers that are made from resin and dyed to different shades of red, crimson and scarlet.
“I was on the phone with a friend of mine visiting Lahore, and she narrowly escaped a bomb in a bazaar,” Butt says. “I remember thinking how we can never picture our own death. Yet it is so real at the same time. We rely heavily on the news, but can never step outside and see ourselves. We can never even imagine it, and we take it for granted”
Similar fingers and toes were casted on the wall in delicate layers like rose petals coming as a whole and exploding like a firework in her work “I am my Lost Diamond.”
“You cast your fingers, and you don’t look at it that way, up close,” she says. “It’s a little bit of skin or nail. It is looking at yourself differently and bringing attention to the precariousness of life. It’s a very ugly reality.”
In a time when bicultural identities are becoming more and more common, Ambreen Butt’s art in galleries all over the United States speaks volumes about modern Pakistani art. Her latest work was showcased in the Carroll and Sons gallery in South Boston, and will be moved to Tufts’ Tisch Gallery in January 2013.
Ambreen Butt first began painting professionally during her undergraduate years in her hometown Lahore. In the renowned National College of Arts, she chose miniature painting as her major.
“The moment I saw it, I felt seduced by the art,” she says with a half-smile, a look of reverie clouding her face. “I was drawn in by everything.”
“It is tangible, it’s so close to you, the marks are so small, barely there,” she explains. “My relationship with my work took a lot out of me, but it was always so worth it.”
As she began to explore the genre of miniature art, she said she wanted to do more than just carry the baton of a dying art form.
“I wanted to contemporize it,” Butt says.
Her inspiration came from a passion for social issues, and a good supply of Khuwateen magazines.
“It was something out of teen auratein, teen kahaniyaan” Butt says about her undergraduate thesis on miniature painting. “There were lessons to be learnt, about breaking social boundaries, they were very real issues. You never really know if they were ever even true, you know how they always say names and places have been changed, but they still had a deep impact on me.”
Butt narrates a story passionately one narrative that stuck with her. It was about a feudal family, and a maid who grows up believing she was a part of it, until she is exploited.
“For me, art became about social issues in miniature art, like a writer sometime feels responsible to tell the story, and address social concerns,” Butt says. “I was particularly struck by the representation of women in miniature art. They were often smaller, more diminished and the male icons resembled old Krishna, and had a more god-like representation. It was trying to create the same atmosphere of hierarchies as the stories.”
Butt’s work began to become more personal.
“I became intrigued by the female figures in miniature paintings,” Butt says. “They were always shown to be seductive, as objects through the male gaze. I was more concerned with the woman herself, rather than her body.”
Butt applied to MassArt for a Masters in Fine Arts. She had been recently divorced.
“He left, I stayed on in Boston.”
During her early years in Massachusetts, she rented a room from a Boston University Anthropology Professor Shahla Haeri and her husband Walter Crump. They had met in Pakistan when Ambreen was a student at the National College of Arts and Crump was a photography professor.
“Ambreen was very shy, polite, and extremely beautiful, of course” “I would go downstairs and look at her work.”
Haeri says that Butt’s work, like many good artists, has gone through changes and transitions.
“Sometimes her work had more narratives to it,” Haeri says. “I particularly like one of her works and it’s a woman standing on a fish. It’s a beautiful image. There were pieces that were more abstract that I love. Her narrative feminist pieces are easier to understand and interpret in the framework of their time. But then there are some pieces that are very intricate layering, they are a lot more abstract, and to me are a lot more exciting, because then they have this transcendental value that can stand the tests of time, so not just now when feminist consciousness is becoming very important.
“Boston was a great place for reinventing myself as an artist and understanding my identity as a woman,” Butt says. “I grew up in a very protective house, where we were always escorted everywhere. It was very different being on my own, confront my own fears. Back home, I never really used to walk after dark. But when you’re on your and you run out of bread, for example, then you have to break those barriers that have slowly been defined by culture and tradition. I respect it a lot, and I think it’s important to have those boundaries.”
“As a woman newly in the west, I have never had that life. Like after art critiques, I never really went to bars afterwards,”
The pungent smell gave her a headache, she says.
“I’m very health conscious, so I don’t smoke nor drink, and use healthy non-toxic art materials.”
At home, Butt’s children keep her busy, Noor-e-Sahr, 7, loves to read, and is always engrossed in a book. Ali-Hamza is 3, and his mom says he’s the “devil in the house.” She met her husband, Dr. Iqbal Ahmed at a friend’s Eid dinner.
“It was Eid, and a friend invited me to a dinner, and he actually happened to be the one hosting the dinner. He used to come to all my openings”
Yet she also explored her frontiers.
“I never do things on other people’s terms, I never did. I had always known what I wanted. If I try to force myself to do something else, it never really works for me, and it’s a disaster for everyone else,” she laughs.
“I’m rebellious in my own way, and I wanted my message to be delivered in the right vocabulary,” she says, her nose-pin glinting in the light. “It’s very important to be aware of your surroundings, and never let anybody get you down”
Exploring her art forms led her to create her own style of work.
“I believe freedom of expression is our basic human right,” Butt says. “Your expressions, the kinds of effects it can have on you, are profound. You have to create your own vocabulary, according to the space and time you’re living in.”
Butt says that in the early 90s, contemporary miniature practice in South Asia was alien to the western art world.
“It was almost a revival, to make traditional techniques contemporary,” Butt says.
Materials are very important to Butt. She was inspired by Wasli, the handmade paper traditionally used for miniature painting in South Asia. Butt decided to use transparent materials, like plastic and layer it,
“My work started off as my understanding of the world out there. As an artist, it’s difficult to make a wall between your life and your work, it’s very personal”
George Creamer, the Dean of Graduate Programs at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design recalled his experiences with Ambreen saying that her work stood out not only because of the scale of the work, but also because it was a clear acknowledgment to her religious and cultural heritage.
“Ambreen is a very courageous individual not only in terms of addressing her religion and culture department in this fashion, but also in a fairly traditional technique,” Creamer said.”Her other work was unlike anything that was being pursued, and was unique among our foreign students to rely this heavily on one’s cultural heritage, as at the time art schools and colleges were lagging behind in recognizing the validity and importance of this heritage.”
Some of Butt’s work involves ripping pieces of paper that are important to her.
“It’s about transforming something new. The act of ripping has a sense of rejection, but you’re also not destroying, so in a way it’s a rebirth, and in that, it’s very personal. It’s about exploring the meaning of the written word, and a matter of interpretation.
Her piece, “Beyond the Ideas of Rightness or Wrongness” has eleven drawings, depicting the assassinated Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer and his murderer Mumtaz Qadri out of ripped pieces of Pakistan’s blasphemy law documents. Two portraits of the men hang on two different sides, but their features merge, as they blend into one another.
“It was about interpretations, and how a man-made text can be elevated to the level of a holy scripture,” Butt says pensively. It is about heroic representation, that someone can be made an angel or a demon. One can’t exist without the other, and it’s about who you are seeing as a hero. Qadri was showered with rose petals, while Salmaan became a hero for giving up his life. It’s very reflective of your own person. It is a statement that extremism exists within you.”