ANNA KUSTERA is pleased to present an exhibition of a new series of paintings and prints by Pakistani-born artist Ambreen Butt in her second solo show at the gallery. Educated in the precise technique, saturated colors, and storytelling tradition of Mughal era (1526-1857) miniature painting, she combines that style with a modern sensibility to convey the terrible effects of tumultuous current events.
Haunting female figures appear in every beautifully detailed work, seducing viewers with decorative and figurative imagery into examining the scenes more closely. Closer scrutiny reveals that alongside these passive and idealized subjects of long ago are women of today, women actively and vociferously asserting themselves, raising their hands and voices at the risk of beatings and worse in an unstable world. Butt chose the exhibition’s title “Dirty Pretty” to describe the disturbing juxtaposition that makes her emotionally charged works so compelling. Butt says that with all the unrest in the world, “I had to justify time in the studio. I had to respond to the world outside.”
Traditionally, women in Mughal art were seen through men’s eyes. Butt seeks to correct those unjust and patronizing representations and celebrate women today for their courage in face of horrendous conditions. In one work, delicately painted dancing women encircle layered images of present day protesters, the outline of each protester stitched into and puncturing the drawing surface. Another shows a woman in mid-outcry in the shadow of a police helmet against a mandala of fish, standing in for the pools of jeweled and ringed fish that were an entertainment for ladies in the Mughal court. In “Ladybugs,” a crowd of women in chador raises poles, empowered by the anonymity of their conservative garb which to Western eyes is a sign of subjugation.
Now a resident of Boston, Butt came to the United States from Pakistan to study in the early 90s, earning her Master’s degree from the Massachusetts College of Art in 1997. She quickly won attention with her striking mixture of miniature painting, conceptualism and minimalism, and began showing in galleries and museums in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin and Pakistan. In her first exhibition at the Anna Kustera Gallery in 2005, she used as models contemporary figures, heroines like Mukhtaran Mai, a Pakistani village woman who in 2002 was sentenced by her village council to gang rape as punishment for her younger brother’s alleged affair but who eventually was able to establish a thriving school for girls in her village. This series was again featured in the ‘Global Feminisms’ exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007.
Recent trips to visit relatives in war-torn Pakistan have only increased her desire to combine her own personal experience with that of others. Butt stunningly accomplishes this in paintings like “The Great Hunt,” where gazelles weep as they are hunted down, and the series of prints, “Daughter of the East”, where behind the refined details and muted colors, one discerns conflict and suffering. Her elaborate technique also reflects her world consciousness, often including images from online world news sites. Her works are delicately rendered in pencil, gouache, and other media on various layers of handmade paper and Mylar, giving them a sculptural appearance. “I want to use beauty to convey my ideas, ” she says, “not a sledgehammer.”