“Art has a purpose in society… it’s not made to make anyone comfortable. I have long endeavoured to challenge social stereotypes to provoke reaction through my artwork,” says internationally renowned artist Faiza Butt at a Stellar International Art Foundation event promoting female artistic empowerment in London.
Butt along with Dr Sona Datta — an award-winning writer, curator and art historian —isn't shy of expressing her thoughts on gender politics and artistic inequality. Together, the two raise significant issues on gender and cultural prejudice in today’s art world. And it’s her artwork that Butt uses to make a radical statement —objectifying and eroticising the male face for the feminine gaze.
Her work sharply critiques the history of the male gaze and is in reaction to the history of the female nude. Instead of rendering men in nude seductive positions, she renders the objectified male identity. “Hyper male or macho identity comes in the guise of the political leader, the champion sportsman and the radical terrorist. All these characters are protagonists in my compositions, supported by rich parallel narratives. I draw gladiatorial sportsmen engaging in seductive homoerotic contact, hence becoming what the hyper-masculine identity fears most,” says the Pakistani-born artist, who draws inspiration from journalistic photography, advertising, the media and cinema.
Her art looks through the feminine lens to address the human condition, encompasses both men and women, and the politics that exist between them, which are cross-cultural, universal, and rooted in history.Buttjuxtaposes her central figures with elements of pop culture and those that are a sign of femininity, including cupcakes, ice cream meringues, hairdryers and flowers. Many of the objects are mirror repeated and have some relationship with the central protagonist in the shape they take, and in the symbolism they represent.
“Domesticity and edible beauty is always present in my work; that’s my signature,” adds Butt, who has exhibited at the Asia Society, New York, Art Dubai, Art Basel Hong Kong, the India Art Fair and the Venice Biennale among others.
Butt blossomed under the mentorship of Prof S Hashmi during her time at Lahore’s National college of Arts. “She helped us develop an appetite for culture, change and alternative way of looking at the world that surrounds us. Her family’s legacy of resistance towards conservatism and bigotry was known to all of us, and that commanded a lot of respect from her students,” she explains.
Butt’s style of developing an image is referred to as pointillism, which developed during her MA at the Slade School of Art. Having rejected the dominant thrust of painting as a product of Western art history, she developed a style that was somewhere between the ‘Purdakht’ (rendering) of Indian miniature to the pixels of a photograph. Tiny dots of Indian ink are layered together to create saturation of colour, and define form. “I wanted to create a method that was rooted in art traditions from my cultural heritage. My resistance towards painting was from the gender perspective, where not only I challenged the history of the male gaze but also the dominance of men in art in general”.
While Butt’s work follows the principles of feminism, her hope is to extend her voice both to men and women. In a world where female artists strive to receive the recognition their male counterparts get, Dr Datta believes that womenneed to be given equal space at art fairs. “I don’t think they should be segregated and given a special space because that in a sense marginalizes them; what we aim to do is to bring them into the mainstream. Those who come to see the big names among male artists will encounter female artists as equals,” she says.