February issue 2010
A Life Less Ordinary
“Painting allows my imagination, intuition and accident to intervene in the crafting of an image, which is thereby an act of pleasure and magic, bringing into existence what it is I want to see — to fill an absence in the world. I paint because it gives me license to stare, to be able to flesh out an idea, emotion, or commit to an image a shadow of the world around me. I paint as a political act: to express my power over power larger than myself and often in conversation with other images, words and music.”
— Asim Butt
It is tough to write the second obituary, in one week, of a dear friend and a special artist.
In this last week, I have been in touch with artist friends in Rawalpindi, Dubai, New York and London — all ex-students in previous years at the fine arts department of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, and all who had a special relationship with Asim Butt. Numerous memories have returned… I think the feelings we all share for him cannot be measured by the length of time we knew Asim, but by the depth of how much he touched us all.
As a student, Asim was always challenging and questioning everything in a meaningful way — he was never a passive consumer of what was dished out to him, to the exasperation of many.
Our conversations in tutorial sessions were lively. Asim would share his current reading material, whether it was literature, critical theory or philosophy. As an individual whose interests in reading always filtered into the visual imagery he was making, this relationship between text/context and image was crucial to understanding what was going on in his work. But his was a personal understanding of history and colonialism, not illustrative extensions of undigested jargon.
Asim’s work was developing in a figurative manner, and he drew on the tradition of personal narrative painting that has a strong history in Pakistan with artists such as Anwar Saeed. He chose to work primarily through the process of oil paint — a medium that embodied a kind of sensuality for him and gave him the opportunity to use an intuitive and direct approach.
During this time he worked with ideas of identity/self-identity and sexuality. He was challenging and negotiating the constructions of maleness in Pakistani society that few contemporary artists have confronted in such an honest and outspoken way.
In the studio, Asim had a closeness to his work. He constantly pushed himself to work on a more ambitious scale and with a confidence of control and detail. He had a level of intimacy with the material body of paint, so that the brush was an extension of his mind and its contact with the canvas surface was a continuous flow of ideas. I think this bridge was the most transparent evidence of his thought process and outpourings. Hence, the restless layer after layer of image that did not find an anchor for many days at a time. When he worked, he was on the inside of that image. A place that is bewildering to many an artist, let alone the layman, because it is a place that is dark and yet there are mirrors all around through which you have to find your own compass.
Asim’s studio practice after leaving Indus became more and more diverse. Alongside the civil society movement to restore the judiciary, his commitment to social change took on a far greater role through site-specific artworks across the city, in protest against the Emergency imposed in 2007. His urge to scavenge and scour the streets of this city by day or night was for him a way to get beneath the skin of this city; to understand the motives and relationships created on the fringes of society.
Between all this social critique and narrative painting, I feel he wanted his imagery to be speculative, autonomous, to make us think and search for answers.
Asim struggled but never seemed to be defeated by the narrow-mindedness of society and those around him. The lack of respect for art and its relevance to society was not lost on him. He did not make work to please those around him but to understand the complexity of life, his life primarily.