Why you should care

Artist Ambreen Butt is subverting the traditional form of miniature painting to take a stand for women.

Spend some time looking at the ornate miniature paintings popularized by Mughal courts and Persian epics, and you’ll notice that these tiny masterpieces, created with pigment mixed in seashells and brushes made from just a few strands of squirrel hair, have something in common: their depiction of women. The female form is often heavily adorned and doing little aside from lying back dreamily.

When Pakistani-American artist Ambreen Butt learned that the bejeweled and beguiling women in the paintings she loved had all been made by men, she was moved to create paintings that subvert the archetypal notions of female purity and propriety — and one in a big way.

One of Butt’s latest works, I Need a Hero (2016), makes a massive mark in the miniature style. Towering across the facade of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, I Need a Hero is a 36-foot canvas inspired by an iconic figure in modern-day Pakistan: Mukhtar Mai, a woman who defied social norms and demonstrated tremendous courage by speaking out against the men who gang-raped her.

Ambreen Butt

I Am My Lost Diamond 2 (detail), by Ambreen Butt

Source Courtesy of Ambreen Butt

There was this need for a female hero in traditional miniature painting because I’ve seen so many [male] heroes.

Ambreen Butt

Butt’s evocative piece depicts a sweatpants-clad woman with one hand resting casually on her hip, the other grasping a seemingly stunned dragon by its belly, and one foot crushing the head of a baffled blue troll-like creature. Another demon — likely the heroine’s next victim — spins past her on a bike made of its own tail. From the corners of the painting, women focus their gaze on the bold figure at the center of it.

Ambreen Butt

I Am All What Is Left of Me, by Ambreen Butt

Source Courtesy of Ambreen Butt

For Butt, Mai’s quest for justice was as remarkable as the smackdown her heroine lays on the slew of strange creatures. “There was this need for a female hero in traditional miniature painting because I’ve seen so many [male] heroes,” Butt says. “And we’re always looking for a hero, aren’t we, to fix the problems of society.”

Everything about I Need a Hero — its subject, themes and size — contradicts the traditional form of miniature painting. And yet, Butt says, the form and its focus on aesthetic beauty is behind everything she does. Educated at the National College of Arts — one of the only institutions in the world to grant degrees in miniature painting — in Lahore, Pakistan, Butt is known for creating provocative works, from early pieces that depict women as semenlike squiggles to more recent sculptures made of hundreds of colorful resin fingers laid out in blossoming patterns. Much of Butt’s work is as enchanting as it is eerie, and that goes back to her training in tradition.

“No matter how disturbing my work is, and oftentimes it is, I want to make it as beautiful as I can,” the artist says. “I wrap my message into the foil of beauty” — like the gold leaf along the edges of Mughal-era miniatures — “so it’s easy to look at.”

I Need a Hero will be exhibited on the facade of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum until June 26, 2017.

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