Faiza Butt is an internationally renowned Pakistani artist whose work is currently displayed in the British Museum and the Kiran Nadar Museum, Delhi.
She was recently invited to speak at The Stellar International Art Foundation’s event on Art, Sensuality and Feminism for International Women’s Day.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
Originally from Pakistan, I live in London with my husband and two children, juggling motherhood and a career as an artist. Growing up in a matriarchal family alongside my five sisters, there has always been a strong feminist influence in my life, and this is apparent in my work. My intention as an artist has always been to speak a social relevance and to trigger discussions on important issues in politics, gender inequality and identity, such as the Stellar International Art Foundation’s event last month. Only by highlighting issues can we unpick the systems of power that have come to dominate. My work therefore discusses important subjects of taboo such as sexual orientation, giving voice to new rising narratives based on gender parity.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
Art has always been a passion of mine and I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to shape a career based on this labor of love. I didn’t necessarily sit down and map out this path but in Pakistan artistic talent is considered a natural gift that should be nurtured.
After studying at the National College of Arts in Lahore, where I was trained as a painter in the department of fine art with Mughal Miniatures as my minor subject, I travelled to London to complete my post graduate studies at The Slade School of Fine Art. Here I was granted the UNESCO-Aschberg Bursary, which allowed me to travel to South Africa and run artistic workshops for women in shantytowns, whilst developing my skills as an artist. The positive support I received through my youth and education therefore enabled me to envision a future as an artist effecting a positive change on how we view society. This has been a driving force behind my work ever since and has been aided by opportunities given to me by organizations such as The Stellar International Art Foundation.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
Traditionally the patriarchal western way of painting has been considered the history of art, and in many respects, the history of the world. When I arrived at The Slade School of Fine Arts, I realised just how dominant this practice still remained, so I made an active decision to abandon the traditional ways of painting on large canvases with rich oil paints.
I chose instead a medium of pen on paper, making use of the materials I had at hand in a technique called Purdakht. These small-scale labor-intensive works of mine were often dismissed as decorative and too feminine for serious consideration in the art world.
Defending my work and sticking to this technique, rather than conforming to the stereotypical norm, was one of the hardest challenges I have ever had to overcome. Overtime though, I succeeded in carving out a voice for my work in a crowded market and this is arguably one of my greatest achievements.
How should we accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity in society?
I think the key lies with raising awareness! Only through sparking discussions about Gender Parity in society can we really begin to evoke notable change. Visual art is a great medium to start these discussions as it can encourage people to explore new perspectives. Yet often artists lack the necessary support to vocalise their views on a broader stage.
This is where I have found that organisations such as The Stellar International Art Foundation, founded by Mrs Anita Choudhrie, can play a crucial role.
By giving artists in diaspora a platform to showcase their work, foundations like Stellar can help to trigger key debates and bring us a step closer to embracing gender parity across the board. For instance, last month I was honoured to speak at Stellar’s event on Art, Sensuality and Feminism, discussing my views on how we can bring female artists into the broader history of art narrative.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
I’d say balancing a family and a career. Even in today’s progressive society, female artists still feel the need to mask the fact that they are mothers in order to be seen as serious, dedicated professionals.
For too long parenting has been considered the enemy of great art with creativity and motherhood being an ineffective mix. Whilst it is true that the list of successful female artists without children is far longer than that with, I feel strongly that this doesn’t need to be the case.
In many respects our primary purpose in life is to parent and to forge a career that allows us to provide for loved ones. That’s why I often bring my children into my work and attend debates like Stellar’s on gender equality, challenging notions of taboo on parenthood and artistic success.
I must also mention my mid-career retrospect held at the New Art Exchange in Nottingham, which also toured around Britain. Having battled against engrained stereotypes and worked so hard for my career, to be rewarded with such an accolade was a key personal highlight for me.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
Adopting miniature paintings instead of larger canvas paintings has significantly contributed to my resultant success. Traditionally, the Mughal miniature paintings were considered a valuable item that you bring out for joyous occasions, to display and record life stories of the Kings.
At The Slade I resisted the thrust of western art history and developed a style, inspired by Indian Miniature, as a method that was rooted in the artistic traditions of the indo sub-continent. By exploring this relatively overlooked practice through a western perspective, I have succeeded in sparking a great deal of curiosity and interest in my work.
I’m very grateful to my teachers at Slade because, rather urging me to reconsider my approach, they encouraged me explore the technique further and to look at my art through new gazes and from new angles. This support gave me the confidence to pursue my career with passion and to carve the path I am on today.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I think mentoring is a great idea and one of the best ways for individuals to share their knowledge and continue to learn from one another.
I was very fortunate to have Professor S Hashmi as a mentor during my time at The National College of Arts where, alongside my contemporaries, I blossomed under her tuition and guidance. She helped us to develop an appetite for culture, change and an alternative way of looking at the world that surrounds us, and that perception has been crucial in shaping my work throughout my career.
The fact that I still avail her company and advice today demonstrates the strong impact teachers can have, and the continued importance of mentoring. I must also mention my head of department at The Slade, Tess Jarry. She was an excellent feminist role model and encouraged us to challenge patriarchy in the art world.
I come from a family of teachers, and therefore mentoring and tutoring is in my DNA. I have taught at all levels, from nursery to higher education, and I am very sensitive to the fact that adult guidance can save and shape a drifting young individual in need. My most noteworthy experiences came from teaching art to sixth form students in the boroughs of Hackney and Newham. Being a mentor to teenage migrant students was a responsibly I took seriously. I helped them to use art as a social commentary to explore issues of migration and displacement.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
Never give up on what you believe in! Throughout life, regardless of the sector you work in or environment you live in, there will always be people who try to convince you that the way you work, or live, or love is wrong. Only you can know what is truly right for yourself, so trust your instincts. If you believe strongly in what you are doing, then have the confidence to stick to the path you have carved for yourself and prove the doubters wrong.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
I have already been fortunate enough to exhibit across the globe at events such as Art Basel Hong Kong, The Indian Art Fair and The Venice Biennale. However, I would now like to work on extending this international reach, raising the parapet of contemporary non-western practice in the art world, whilst sparking important discussions on gender parity and cultural parameters to help break down some of these barriers across society.
In particular, I hope to be able to work towards raising the profile and visibility of female artists and encourage their integration in the mainstream art critique to ensure they become more than a footnote in the grander narrative of contemporary art.
What does the future hold in terms of equality and visibility for diasporic female artists?
This is an issue closes to my heart. I had the privilege of having the most outstanding and talented women as my contemporaries at the arts schools. But as I witnessed, a lack of support during motherhood, financial hard ship and lack of opportunity, made these gifted individuals give up their passion.
I am often asked how did I make a career possible with a low income and parenthood? And my answer is, as a diasporic artist I must work far harder to keep my head above the water. It’s been a very tough journey, but I am also proof that hard work can be rewarded as well. All the challenges that I encountered have contributed towards sharpening my senses and strengthening my resolve. Hence my art has that richness that speaks for itself.