Listening to Faiza Butt talk about her work, I’m struck with a moment of clarity where I see the connection between artist and work as clearly as I ever have. She is illuminating and darkly humorous, delicate and bold, articulate but infinitely accessible. She is concerned first and foremost that her art is social commentary, as she believes all art should be. The body of work presented in ‘Paracosm’ plots a map of her experiences so far and charts her navigation of a life where the personal and political are tightly woven.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, the influence of traditional Indian miniature painting shapes her exquisitely detailed and highly elaborate craft. In western art history it would be described as ‘pointillism’, though its formation here is far older. It stands, she recalls, in direct contrast to the deeply masculine practices she was overwhelmed by when continuing her training at Slade School of Art in London as a young artist. Where huge, thick canvases were splashed with heavy oil paint by her male peers, she focussed inwards, maximising her own personal economy (both physical and financial) in more subtle ways. A line is, after all, she says, just a dot going for a walk.
Masculinity continues as a pervasive theme across the breadth of Faiza’s work. Male portraits are softened in washes of pale pastel pinks and baby blues, and the cheap boudoir fuchsia and black of Primark underwear. Eyes are enlarged, mouths softened, and bodies pressed too delicately against each other to be anything but firmly homoerotic. She is concerned with the connection between image and text, especially in the media. Many of her portraits are mugshots or stylised forms of conventional masculinity which when presented to us through the news media, come pre-codified with judgements on maleness, violence, and most strikingly, how these come together in portrayals of Muslim men. If faces can be portrayed as the battleground of nefarious politics, she is building her own revolution. If a stare can feel like a physical, affecting thing, she is moulding her own physicality, contra masculinity and race. Her gentle distortions pack a powerful punch and are nothing short of iconoclasm: idealised images with subtext torn down, a new fantasy/reality taking its place.
The title of the exhibition ‘Paracosm’ itself references an imaginary world in the mind. Some of her most recent work is particularly fantastical as it takes a distinctly sci-fi tone. Glittering Hubble images and split open meteorites are overlaid with highly decorative Kufic script. Once again we are seeing the blurring of text and image, this time in reverse, where script becomes so embellished as to be rendered unreadable. The usual codification of meaning in language is distorted and ultimately, unimportant. You won’t be able to resist the urge to step closer and unravel the meaning, but appreciating the beautification of the letters is reward in itself.
Faiza here is encompassing ‘our quest for the tangibility of heaven’. Her meteorite samples are quite literally pieces of the celestial world colliding with our own but rendered here as bitesize chunks of science made accessible. The text she has chosen comes from poems by Aga Shadid Ali and Faiz Ahmed Faiz that read as distinctly secular against their heavenly background. The overall effect is dazzling to the point of gaudy, immersive and almost overwhelming, a natural crescendo to the exhibition.
On the way into the final gallery space, we are presented with a series of work in a similar style; this time titles of 20th century science fiction blockbusters painstakingly carved out in her textured Kufic script. A wry smile and a knowing shrug, reminding us that even when considering the explosive collision of heaven and earth, reality and fantasy, we probably shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously anyway.
Paracosm runs until 18 December at Attenborough Arts Centre and is FREE.
Don’t miss the free event Faiza Butt in conversation Thursday 10 November at Attenborough Arts Centre, 6.30pm – 8pm.