The magic of a new realism

May 7, 2023

In her new paintings, Faiza Butt employs a new visual language

The magic of a  new realism


eality perhaps is the most misunderstood idea. We often view reality and describe its components through their colours. The sun is red; or yellow, white or violet? Or green (as a child in one of my drawing sessions insisted); considering it contains all hues of the spectrum. Reality is observed and perceived – rather conceived. It may not exist outside of our minds. James Fox, in The World According to Colour, quotes some people, who “argue that colour doesn’t inhabit the physical world at all but exists only in the eye or mind of the beholder. They maintain that if a tree fell in a forest and no one was there to see it, its leaves would be colourless – like everything else. They say there is no such thing as colour; there are only the people who see it.”

Through their work, artists support the subjective understanding of reality. Any means of capturing what is seen, subsequently turns it into a version. Photographs, regarded by many as a mechanical method of recording reality, present a flat, static and small – or enlarged - replacement of it. Super-naturalistic sculptures of human beings in actual attire, which could deceive a visitor, are life-like, but lifeless. American author Ursula K Le Guin claims: “At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence.”

A creative person constructs a substitute – or meta-reality, which in its essence declares its unreality. It is a fabrication that is, somehow, more believable and permanent than the feeble actual. A bunch of sunflowers arranged by Vincent van Gogh decayed, disintegrated and died soon after the artist painted them in 1888, but the picture will remain fresh in his canvas for centuries to come. Faiza Butt also produces a parallel reality, which appears familiar, yet demands our concentration to access it.

The magic of a  new realism

The paintings (part of her recently concluded solo exhibition The Real Unreal, March 30–May 6, at Aicon, New York City), on a cursory glance may be called genre paintings. In her essay Genre: A Word Only a Frenchman Could Love, Le Guin mentions the dictionary definition of genre “‘a kind or style, especially of art or literature’… a term for painting of a certain type and subject matter: ‘scenes and subjects of common life.’” The American author elaborates that “when the term made its way into literature, it came to mean anything but the realistic and commonplace.”

In that context, Faiza Butt’s work moves between reality and unreality, eventually turning the two into a single, inseparable entity. Her paintings look real, but at the same time challenge our perception of reality, besides questioning the edifice of reality forged in the past, particularly in the course of European art history from Renaissance to Neo-Classicism. For an art student, from the Global South, reality is what was decided by these Western artists, and not by the painters and sculptors from India, China, Turkey, Africa and Mesoamerican etc.

Faiza Butt dismantles this construct of reality in her new paintings (a medium that she has returned to after many years of a marvellous practice of pointillist technique on paper, ceramics, and digital prints), employing a language of apparent realism. Her approach could be compared to an expatriate who acquires the vocabulary of his/ her adopted land; occasionally to critique it. One such example is Rasheed Araeen. He employs the idiom of contemporary Western art to challenge racist notions and marginalising attitudes in mainstream art. Butt, who moved to the UK in 2001, uses the perfect diction of realistic European art to unpack all constructs of reality, from the colonial past to the global present.

Her paintings – which the artist hopes “draw the audience in, with seduction of beauty, skill and scale,” unravel the historical accounts of exploitation and segregation, continued into the first quarter of the 21st Century. The artist “found inspiration in the Dutch Old Masters, from the Golden Age of painting such as Melchoir de Hondecoter, whose works represented exotic birds.” Since the “Dutch traded with far-off cultures, such as India and China,” there are parrots, peacocks, cockerels and a baboon in her oil on boards. Through these intelligently orchestrated compositions, Faiza Butt brings the scenario of an ideal, Edenic world, which for colonialists was attractive, albeit primitive. They transported species (birds and animals) which they found odd, exciting and extraordinary and put them in their homes, zoos and artworks.

The magic of a  new realism

Faiza Butt’s work moves between reality and unreality, eventually turning the two into a single, inseparable entity. Her paintings look real, but at the same time challenge our perception of reality, besides questioning the edifice of reality forged in the past, particularly in the course of European art history from Renaissance to Neo-Classicism.

Butt comments on this custom by bringing in the residue of another phenomenon, that can be explained in terms of neo-colonialism, post-colonialism or globalisation, in which products manufactured in the Western world are marketed in the former colonies, where these are revered as valuable. Mundane things like Pepsi and Coke, McDonald’s Big Mac, and KFC burgers, which in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles would be the most rudimentary items, assume the status/ sign of a prosperous, happy and successful lifestyle in the countries that still subscribe to the language, dress, food and other cultural expressions of their former rulers. In September 1998, when the first branch of McDonald’s opened in Lahore, there was a mile-long queue of customers for a product which in its homeland is treated ordinary and is thus invisible.

The same is the case with peacocks and parrots in their native lands. These were/ are part of everyday existence, but when transported to European soil, these acquired an importance, not dissimilar to the fascination for the fast-food and carbonated drinks in South Asia. Faiza Butt, impressively compares and contrasts two exotic elements. One, brought from distant shores, was not toxic or disharmonious – and was beautiful. The other, imposed through multinational marketing, has less or no nutrition, is dangerous to health and a grave threat to environment. What would you do with a Pepsi can, the styrofoam packing of a Hardee’s burger, a KFC plastic container or wrapper of a crisp packet. The trash will stay for hundreds of years - like the aftermath of conquest and colonisation in Asia, Africa, Americas and Australia.

Butt makes another move towards her narrative of superimposition, suppression and suffocation. In her sensitively rendered surfaces of a young boy and girl, amid a background of classy settings – sofas, cushions, carpets, curtains, ornately framed paintings, porcelain, piano and other signs of comfort and affluence, she introduces an object, small, usual and insignificant, like a TV remote control, a mobile phone, iPod in use by these youngsters, that is now essential, indispensable and urgent (imagine yourself without your smart phone for 24 hours).

Faiza Butt’s other paintings - regular still lifes, comprising pieces of pottery, glass, flowers – show a similar situation. Standard and beautiful composition of a blue china vase or a transparent drinking glass with flowers are surrounded by wires of earphones, or mobile chargers, suggesting the presence of these gadgets in our lives, which (like Apple products) satiate our sense of aesthetics, much like a European painting.

“Concerns about human tainting of the natural world are clearly expressed in this series,” but there is also content beyond that. The presence of mobile phones and accessories, earphones, and remote controls elaborates the title of Butt’s solo show, The Real Unreal. A painting on the wall from the 19th Century, a decorative curtain, an exquisite Far-Eastern cabinet, a domineering settee all look real, but the reality lies somewhere else: in the mobile phone; the most powerful means for capturing, containing and conveying it.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

The magic of a new realism