Art And Soul


At first glance, the work of Faiza Butt (on display at Gallery Chawkandi in August), does not allow easy access. The levitating forms, the translucent tempera and the unexpected appearance of classicised images do not make a stereotypical canvas.

As new symbols are sought, unfamiliar images give clues to the ethos of the society in which we live: a social milieu where camaraderie is commonly found with same-sex companions as sanctioned by societal norms. Butts women seek solace in each others company, kindred spar its conditioned by conventions.

Some faces are overtly asexual; effeminate men with curling locks recall the ambiguous mehboob in Urdu and Persian verse, in which the traditional male wine-server and the female lover are both addressed with similar words of affection. The paintings are also biographical narratives shaped by lived experiences which force her to question the gender bias within the average family-its irrational desire for a male heir, who once born, is treated as a trophy. Mother looks at him as a source of power by proxy and father as an extension of his manhood. Female siblings give him unquestioning importance, thereby unconsciously sending a message, generation after generation, that female social salvation lies in procreating a similar miracle. Butt learnt to struggle against such bigotry at a young age: went in a Family of six sisters and one brother, nothing could convince her she was a lesser being. Her angst and conflict is interpreted in a mosaic of historical and contemporary icons. Her triptych depicts a pregnant wife, oblivious to her own emotional and physical torment as she continues to bear offspring till a man-child is born. The little cherubs that populate her canvas not only establish a reference to Renaissance European art that entered experimental miniatures during Akbar and Jehangirs times but the unchanging tradition of patriarchy which uses even the innocent male infant as a tool of control.

Potent with social comment, each painting can be read on multiple levels. The formalistic concerns seek connections with populist imagery where idealism embedded in the romance of naturalism, surprisingly reveals a content which is as fatalistic as it is materialistic. Even heaven is marketed as eternal serenity with the promise of carnal pleasures and physical luxury. Whether a candidate for heaven or for the consumer world, the ultimate dream never really changes.

A fair Mona Lisa-esque portrait and its companion, a whirling angel, floats in a sky full of clouds; floral icons and Persian calligrams complete the message. Its mount, crafted from yellowing Urdu newspapers, heightens the cultural contrast. This contrast, however diverse, articulates the intercultural influences that exist like a sub-culture in our environs-akin to the wider Jamaiati zouq, where a synthesis of Islamic and classical Indian aesthetic traditions and Victorian images make strange bedfellows. Heraldic scrolls, cherubs, crests, cameos, plastic balloons etc. are at home with lush tropical foliage of banana plants and gourd creepers on Butts canvas.

The easel painting tradition in the subcontinent is a colonial legacy just like the medium of oil paints. Faiza Butt in her work has reclaimed tempera, the indigenous medium, and uses it to enhance her spontaneous style. The freshness of her artistic inquiry adds another interesting dimension. Redolent of Chagall, the images flow in an ethereal haze, except the dream world of the master is replaced by a comment on society by the young painter.

At this stage Butts raw technique has its own charm, but it needs refinement. In some works the disparate elements do not convincingly support the narrative and remain disconnected. These unresolved aspects if left unaddressed could distract rather than add coherence to her articulations.

Nonetheless, as the paintings of Faiza Butt contribute to the ongoing discourse on history and society through populist images, it will be interesting to see where this young painter will go from here.