‘Paracosm’: Faiza Butt

“Artists have a purpose in society. You do not make art to make anyone comfortable or to amuse people. Art is a language, a code through which you hope to make a difference
– Faiza Butt


Background, technique, style

Butt’s work contains relevant issues to the local communities. Her work is time-intensive, so this show is curated more as a retrospect looking at the human condition, gender and life as a whole. Paracosm as a title undermines all these themes harmoniously, as in this imagined world visitors can create their own narratives by looking at the symbols and codes present in her work.

She uses a breadth of media throughout. The art school that she trained at in Lahore was founded to train craftsmen and is now considered the best art school in South-East Asia. It also has a unique department that teaches the ways of the Indian miniature painting tradition which has a huge impact on Butt. This tradition uses the Pointillist technique, creating tiny strokes of colour overlapping each other, similar to the way pixels create hues. Her times at this art school left her full of ideas, taking inspiration from the past then looking at new media to create elaborate detail.

Butt cherishes ideas and artistic mind-set over medium. She uses whichever media best expresses her ideas, hence the wide array of media on offer in the exhibition. She is suspicious of artists who stick to just one technique, because she believes processes should be richer and more interesting than being confined to a set style.

Beauty, Conversations, Imagery

Butt uses conventional traps of beauty in a strong way to tell a story. She aims to inspire deeper conversations masked at first through the initial presence of beauty. The layering of the imagery is a hope to make the works universally understood and accessible to those people beyond the arts. The degree of richness in her work appeals to all.

The images Butt uses often come from journalistic images and different sources of media. Her aim is to take the context or framing of the photograph as her starting point and offer social commentary upon the topics. She is using found imagery as a source, much like Duchamp used found objects for his works.

There can be many reactions when encountering her work, but the goal is not to criticise belief system. Rather, her desire is to raise a few questions and to keep the conversation of these topics going. Butt believes that art should not be snobbish, instead appealing to all people who are outside the art world. Galleries are open to everyone, thus works should be for everyone too.

Gender, politics, representation

Butt rejects abstract ways of working such as Abstract Expressionism, a movement which males are dominantly portrayed as the figureheads (e.g. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning). In fact, de Kooning’s wife Elaine was a better painter but she was hidden behind her husband’s fame. Men were seen as superior.

Gender politics, masculinity and love are portrayed throughout Butt’s work, sometimes coded and sometimes explicit. The presence of men in her work is a comment on women, causing viewers to analyse prejudice.

The key question: What is dividing us? We live in an age where we are scientifically so advanced that we can make a copy of a human being (cloning) but are struggling to accept love. In some areas of the world, people are still hanged for homosexual love. Butt offers a critique of culture, proactively campaigning for acceptance and diversity instead. She represents universal issues.

Prejudice stems from concepts around culture and (media/political) sources who want to control and create conflict. Butt sees sexuality being part of the human condition, not just about sexual activity: attraction is a bigger concept and transcends gender, sex and politics.

Once, Butt was complimented by someone who thought her artwork was created by a male artist. She was thrilled at this, because it meant she had transcended gender boundaries. Women’s artwork is not just embroidery.

Human condition, race, shared histories

Butt presents the idea of the human condition and the ongoing struggle of war and conflict. We live in divided times, hearing of horrendous acts of war and terrorism on a continual basis. This has a snowball effect to migration and the movement of people as they lose territory. She connects this idea further to Brexit which is based on this very notion of people being pushed out of their territory and seeking safe passage to other countries. Brexit promoted a fear of the outsider whilst also exposing the class system in Britain because a large proportion of working class people came out and voted, feeling their lives were not changing so why accept more people into the country if the ‘originals’ are not receiving help.

Perhaps Butt is in a luxurious viewpoint because she is comfortable in her understanding of where she fits in the world and in society. She can see how war and trauma is shaping history. However there is still petty racism. She feels this can connect to Leicester because Leicester has a great number of people from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Their histories are not written into a ‘white’ curriculum in schools.

Connected histories play a large part in her works. The world can divide itself up into areas but it is still one collective planet. She uses the example of the wall between India and Pakistan, use plants can grow through and birds can fly over. The wall is a constructed division. Similarly, the Sahara desert had a sandstorm and the next day sand appeared on cars in the UK. Everything is connected on this planet, despite social constructions of separation and difference.

Race itself is also a social construct. Butt uses the example that if homosapiens had truly diversified, we would not be able to breed. Dolphins have existed beyond homosapiens and have reached a point where some cannot survive in different types of water and they cannot breed with a different type of dolphin. This is true diversification. We as humans are only a young species, we are one on a biological level. Race has been constructed to create hierarchy and petty divisions between skin colour and beliefs.

Representation, example, tolerance

As a Pakistan-born Western artist, the question is whether Butt feels a responsibility to provide representation. Muse she be a voice for her culture, whether that be as a woman, a Pakistani, or a Muslim? This is not something she forces but rather comes naturally. Regardless, she still looked filtered at the world she lives in, seeing how much food is in the supermarket in Britain versus in Pakistan, comparing the material of the sheets etc. Her hope is to make universal work.

Often news is reported about forced marriages, lack of female education and conflict from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Malala Yousafzai comes to mind, fighting for her right and women’s right to education. Conflict is everywhere. However Butt is also from this region, who is outspoken and all for tolerance. She wants to set a small example in this direction.

Butt is proud to be showing her work in Attenborough Arts Centre. Ideas only matter when her art supports a great team and can be transformed into public art. Working for an audience and using art as a language to communicate creates this context which brings her art to life.

The highlight of the show

The large lightboxes are the highlight of the show and is the first time Butt has turned to installation and sculpture. Working with new media, the large monolithic lightboxes act as four walls. The design is based on the architecture of Kaaba (the building at the heart of Islam’s most sacred mosque), which symbolises the height of being a Muslim, with the heavenly being directly above Kaaba. The writing looks like vines and flowers yet also appears to be a spirit. Iconography appears. This is a very visual piece with photographs of deep space being the background to poetry. The poetry is secular, some from a socialist poet and some from a Kashmiri poet. The font is important as it was digitally created by Butt to be Kufic Script translated into English. The landscape is also from Kashmir as well as some other religious iconography. This allows the thinking process to take on various directions. The piece is universal in its symbolism of a spiritual place.

Everything is political for me, this is what interests me. This is the role I want my art to play, to be as purposeful as a writer’s work can be”
– Faiza Butt (quoted in Faiza Butt: The Political Artist, The Express Tribune, January 6 2013)