Return of the exile

October 17, 2021

Faiza Butt’s superb body of work is on display at her solo exhibition, Super Natural, at Grosvenor Gallery

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Layla Listening to You Tube 2021.

Kamila Shamsie, in her short story Mir Aslam of Kolachi (from a collection of 12 authors’ texts in response to Cervantes and Shakespeare) writes about a storyteller in Karachi, who dreams of going to Qurtaba, in Al Andalus. The man does not intend to travel in distance alone but in time too, to the period of Arab presence/ rule in Andalusia, Spain. To an extent he is no different from the narrator of Marcel Proust’s novel Swann’s Way, who admits: “I need only, to make them reappear, pronounce the names: Balbec, Venice, Florence, within whose syllables had gradually accumulated all the longing inspired in me by the places for which they stood.”

We are like Proust’s protagonist; we also conjure up cities, sites, situations whenever we imagine, recall, desire, or dream. In a way, inhabitants of today are simultaneously situated in multiple locations – scattered in time, split in geography. For example, an individual in his/ her bedroom or living space is surrounded by objects manufactured at faraway lands, or produced in past centuries. Thus, picking a spoon a man based in Egypt is linked to Sweden, and by wearing an antique sari a woman in India is connected to the pre-colonial period of her country.

There are other travels to different times and places but tinted in a history of occupation and manipulation. Of European merchant companies, which traded, and subsequently subjugated regions currently categorised as the Third World. Trade and transportation of sought-after substances like spices, exotic birds, alien flowers/ fruits, along with artefacts like illustrated manuscripts, textiles, pottery, woodcut prints, artefacts, jewellery facilitated a dialogue between different quarters of the globe.

One can dismiss the entire phenomenon as unjust commerce, between the oppressor and the oppressed, the exploiter and the exploited, but those exchanges have a silver lining too. The grand master of European art, Rembrandt replicates Mughal miniature brought by the Dutch East India Company; and French Impressionists get inspired by Japanese woodblock prints arriving in Paris, even though all of it, in the end was absorbed into the mainstream of Western canon. There are numerous other encounters, in several directions and for multiple aims/ benefits.

It seems that the world was global even before the term globalisation became a buzz word. Notwithstanding the axis of power, the conversations between cultures enriched every community. Rome conquered Greece, but it was the Greek art that captivates the Roman society/ soul. If we map our world today, we are part of a great mix; disparate continents and centuries are blended in this caldron we call ‘now’. It is a ‘now’ that has swallowed locations and timelines to turn everything valid, valuable and visible.

Witness this in Faiza Butt’s superb body of work from her solo exhibition, Super Natural, at Grosvenor Gallery, London (October 8-20, 2021). The show is important because the artist “returns to painting in oils after a long hiatus, since her days at the Slade School of Art in the 1990s”.The exhibition includes canvases (along with her ceramic pieces), which confirm Butt’s sophistication and mastery in handling that slippery substance called oil colour (added with solvents of other types). It is a process of denoting images and ideas once proclaimed to be redundant. Faiza Butt, ironically, recalls discussions about “the death of painting and its rationale every day, in the so-called ‘painting department’” during her post-graduate studies in the UK.

Super Natural 2021.

The exhibition includes canvases that confirm Faiza Butt’s sophistication and mastery in handling the slippery substance called oil colour.

In his convincing book, The Exile’s Return, Thomas McEvilley argues for a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-Modern Era; and one feels that Faiza Butt, and several others (including Salman Toor), have redefined painting for our age. Actually, the old (and odd) debate of painting being dead, or its resurrection (Butt was at the Slade School in 1990s and McEvilley’s publication came out in 1993), do not hold much currency or relevance today, when every medium is translated into digital format for a wider public. Even sculptures, installations and performances are widely accessed through the internet. So, for a larger context, it hardly matters what material/ technique you choose, because it will survive in digital version in the imagination/ memory of spectators.

Yet Faiza Butt decides to paint, and proves her unmistakable grasp in expanding this familiar language. She renders views of busy interiors with a young girl and a young boy (her children). Surrounded by blue porcelain, paintings in gilded mouldings, mantle pieces with flowers in exuberant vases, books arranged in shelves, bedspreads, printed covers, blankets, comfortable settees and cushions. The human figures seem to be well situated in that interior, which to some extent appears timeless – at least not disclosing the third decade of 21st Century. Adolescents seem routinely suited in a normal house in London, or another European city, or for that matter anywhere in this wide world.

If one sifts through her remarkably painted surfaces, endowed with the pleasure of paint, one discerns that here creations, which ‘look’ family pictures, are comments on our changing surroundings; and our altering relationship with it. Rooms in Butt’s work are populated by a few exotic items from China, Japan and other parts of the globe (exotic is a relative term; a Norwegian anthropologist would be exotic for the Zulu tribe in Africa, like a Spanish doctor among the aboriginals of Australia).

Zack on Spotify, 2021.

Faiza Butt draws our attention to the notion of exoticness by painting Super Natural, in which “exotic birds co-exist in utopian harmony. Humans are absent, but their presence is felt in the form of rubbish and debris, littered around the creatures”. The aspect of exotica documented in the art of Franz Snyder, James A Whistler, and George Hedrick Breitner inspires Butt, as she appropriates their aesthetic components to map a vision of this world, which cannot be delinked from the past, nor detached from the present time. Young adults in their comfortable settings, with their beautiful utensils, canvases, vases, linen, drapery, decoration – holding and possessing gadgets are associated with this era. Smart phone, remote control, using Instagram, accessing YouTube, watching the series Supernatural, listening Spotify, occupy this ‘eternal, perfect’(contemporary) space that reminds one of a cultural/ colonial past that still accompanies us in our contemporary lives, leisure and entertainment.

Faiza Butt debunks, dismantles and destroys constructs about identifying, categorising, and separating ethnicities as exotica, because we survive in a world where a person can pick pasta, biryani and black pudding from the same shelf/ store. It is a society that has just turned Super Natural into natural – or natural into Super Natural, as recorded in Faiza Butt’s art.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

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